My past and present collided in September 2012, when my father and I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark: The IMAX Experience. I grew up watching the Indiana Jones franchise with him and now had the opportunity to enjoy the original film in a new format thanks to director Steven Spielberg and sound designer Ben Burtt.
Every landscape view and boulder rumble wowed us like our first viewing more than twenty years earlier. The nostalgic joy of the experience reminded me of the romanticized view of archaeology that the series instilled in me. As I grew older, I learned to differentiate between a fiction associated with fighting Nazis, cracking whips, and robbing graves and a reality aligned with dedicated training, careful research, and lengthy excavations.
“An archaeologist’s life is not always as exciting [as Indiana Jones],” Patrick E. McGovern, Ph.D. affirms with a laugh. “It’s labor-intensive.” He’s the Scientific Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health. McGovern’s wide-ranging academic background includes a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Cornell University, neurochemistry graduate work at the University of Rochester, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Near Eastern Archaeology and Literature from Penn. His perfect concoction of credentials, personality, and passion make him approachable and engaging to everyone, including beer lovers.
As two keywords in the Penn lab’s name indicates, McGovern knows a few things about the importance of alcohol. In Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages – an archaeological account spiced with historical records and a hint of memoir – he wrote, “Wherever we look…we see that the principal way to communicate with the gods or the ancestors involves an alcoholic beverage, whether it is the wine of the Eucharist, the beer presented to the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi, the mead of Vikings, or the elixir of an Amazonian or African tribe.” Alcohol’s significance doesn’t end there, according to the archaeologist, as it also influences humanity’s social growth. Drinking together is a basic human activity that, in addition to sustainment, leads civilizations to cultivate the land. Social desire also acts a powerful motivator for other tasks. “Imagine,” McGovern suggests to me, “The monumental achievements we’d lack without beer.” For example, survival and the daily promise of a refreshing beverage often encouraged Egyptian slaves to complete their work constructing the pyramids.
The fact that McGovern understands alcohol’s noteworthiness isn’t the only reason beer enthusiasts should feel a kinship with him. If they sample some of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Inc.’s Ancient Ales series, then they’re also at an intersection between the past and present. McGovern works with the Delaware-based company to examine, recreate, and adapt brewing techniques to bring a bygone experience to the modern beer bottle. These successful collaborations have led to the title that the archaeologist expected least in his career. Don Russell, in his Joe Sixpack columns, dubbed McGovern the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages.” The academic’s upbeat and proud demeanor lacks any disdain for his career’s comparison to a pulp fiction throwback character, but it’s not a role he always pursued.
The Discovery of Beer
A young McGovern briefly flirted with beer while traveling to Europe for the first time in the summer of 1961. At age 16, he attended Ithaca High School with German exchange students who convinced his and his friends’ parents to allow them to travel abroad. Once in Germany, McGovern discovered that he could maximize the strong U.S. dollar by ordering beer with meals rather than his standard Coca-Cola. This change was made easier because of the beverage’s superior taste. While kinder to the wallet price-wise, the drink still complicated the payment process. As per local custom, waiters didn’t document orders and relied on patrons to recall their choices before finalizing the check. Remembering a meal’s details became increasingly difficult for McGovern and his friends after two liters of beer.
As the summer continued, the student separated from his classmates and worked on a farm in Bavaria. The family with whom he stayed often included him in their traditions, such as sharing a beer/lemonade mix in a giant mug. They typically offered the beverage to everyone, including children, to enjoy. McGovern partook in this rite of passage, but didn’t have an affinity for the drink. He would feel that way about most beers for the next several decades.
In the late 1990s, McGovern became reacquainted with the spurned beverage at Monk’s Café. Owner Tom Peters offered the now-wine connoisseur a glass of Chimay. “Could this be a beer?” he wondered in Uncorking the Past. “It had all the sensory richness—the complex aromas and flavors—of a fine wine.” At last, McGovern realized that as an archaeologist with a healthy love of alcohol, he should not limit his conceptions of beer—especially quality craft beer. This revelation would later propel McGovern into that unexpected phase of his career.
The Adventures in Wine Country
The decades separating McGovern’s interest in beer didn’t prevent his career from unfolding. He returned to Germany in the 1970s with his wife, Doris, while en route to Jerusalem. They often sought work during the trip, such as seasonal picking in the Mosel wine region, to support their travels. The couple’s employer offered them a generous sampling from his wine cellar after their first day. Several hours and vintages led to a rough morning for McGovern, but he unearthed a newfound thirst that would help fuel his professional work.
As years passed, McGovern received his Ph.D., became an expert on Bronze and Iron Age artifacts, and led a 20-year dig in Jordan’s Baq’ah Valley. There, he unearthed a vessel that once housed royal purple, an ancient Phoenician dye. The discovery began the meshing of archaeological and molecular passions as McGovern investigated the ancient receptacles’ contents rather than simply examining the vessels themselves.
The field combining the forms of studies grew and McGovern and a colleague pursued research that used spectrometry, chromatography, and other tests to identify tartaric acid in a jar from 3100 BC and thus, proved that it once contained wine. This realization, and McGovern’s subsequent article detailing the research, led to his initial fame beyond the academic world. A California wine entrepreneur later contacted him to organize a wide-ranging conference to discuss – and enjoy – wine. The gathering further expanded the archaeologist’s contact with like‑minded people seeking to understand wine in its entirety.
The Resurrection of the Midas Touch
All of McGovern’s interests, including his growing taste for beer, collided in 1998 and 1999. He took an interest in a Turkish tomb that a Penn Museum team had excavated in 1957. Based on the grave’s trappings, which included the largest Iron Age drinking set unearthed, the archaeologists determined that the resting place belonged to the ruler of the ancient district Phrygia, the legendary King Midas – or at least a King Midas. The tomb included the remains of a large funeral feast created in honor of a ruler’s successful reign. Based on this information, McGovern began to investigate the museum’s collection of vats, jugs, and drinking bowls from that particular find. He discovered exactly what he sought: not proof of the mystical powers mentioned in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but a real treasure – several pounds of organic material.
Using the identified material, McGovern plotted the recreation of Midas’ funerary meal. He adapted the tests used on the royal purple dye to determine that the vessels from Midas’ tomb were used to house a drink that combined grape wine, barley beer, and honey mead. The beverage, which could be considered a grog, threatened to ruin his plan to mimic the burial celebration. The wine lover with a growing interest in beer wondered how anyone could mix the two drinks.
Luckily, McGovern soon faced the perfect audience to answer his question. The Penn Museum hosted a banquet honoring beer legend Michael Jackson. There, the archaeologist challenged the microbrewers in attendance to recreate the mixture. Intrigued with the request, dozens of brewers arrived at McGovern’s lab the next morning to learn more. They accepted the task to experiment and he agreed to the hardship of testing the various libations. Soon thirty to forty boxes of beers began arriving at his door. One brewery, however, seemed to have the edge.
Dogfish Head founder and owner Sam Calagione first wowed McGovern with a plum malt and mead drink that he presented at the Jackson celebration. The brewery began offering its “off‑centered” beers in 1995, starting with the Shelter Pale Ale that the archaeologist greatly enjoyed, and never stopped growing in size and selection. McGovern’s recreation challenge intrigued Calagione who also had an interest in the alcohol of the past, which his Jackson dinner braggot demonstrated. McGovern eventually determined that Dogfish Head’s experiment best matched the parameters of the grog, but their work wasn’t over yet.
As the partnership began, Calagione quickly learned the benefits of working with the academic. “[McGovern] considers the evidence and ratios of all of the ingredients as well as the brewers involved,” the Dogfish owner says. This proved helpful when the beverage’s bittering agent couldn’t be identified. Something obviously needed to offset the honey, grape sugar, and barely melt identified in McGovern’s research. They finally decided to use saffron, which is native to Turkey. In Uncorking the Past, the archaeologist explained that the spice was “suggestive of the Midas touch both in its golden color and its price.” Calagione also discovered that Dr. Pat – the nickname he bestowed upon McGovern in the informal brewery setting– enjoyed telling stories, a philosophy that Dogfish maintained with every beer released.
The collaboration between McGovern, Calagione, and Dogfish Head yielded results that benefited them all. Dr. Pat met his goal of reproducing Midas’ burial feast in a Penn Museum gallery. The dinner included a lentil and barbecued lamb stew and fennel tarts in pomegranate jus. For dessert, attendees received the labor of brewing and archaeological ingenuity: the Midas Touch, a drink with a unique golden color and a taste that ends with dryness stemming from the use of tree resin. Dogfish Head eventually released the beer commercially and it became the brewery’s most-awarded drink in the 2000s.
The Continuing Thirst
The archaeologist/brewery pairing continues beyond its initial success. McGovern, in a consultant role, aids Dogfish Head in establishing more beers in what they call the Ancient Ales series. The relationship, according to Calagione, is based on “trust and camaraderie.” They “have a brotherhood of curiosity” for beer history that continues to drive them.
Dr. Pat’s favorite in line, Chateau Jiahu, is based on his discovery of the oldest known alcohol in the world. He found the remnants of the 9,000-year-old beverage that mixed rice, honey, and fruit in China’s Henan province. McGovern and Calagione worked with brewer Bryan Selders to navigate the beer’s delicate combination of flavor, particularly its sweet-and-sour taste, by using brown rice syrup, orange blossom honey, muscat grape, barley malt, and hawthorn berry. That last ingredient presented a multitude of challenges for the team because the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) initially wouldn’t allow its presence in an alcoholic drink, while it was permitted in tea and herbal medicine. After several negotiations, the beer received the agency’s approval and went on to win the gold medal in Colorado’s 2009 Great American Beer Fest.
Theobroma and Ta Henket are also results of McGovern’s quest to provide ancient drinks with a chance for rebirth. A chemical analysis of Honduran pottery fragments revealed that the earliest known alcoholic chocolate drink dates back to 1200 BC. Dogfish Head’s Theobroma emulates the beverage through its inclusion of Aztec cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, honey, chilies, and annatto. Ta Henket, which is Egyptian for “bread beer,” derives its flavor from a combination of ancient-style wheat, loaves of hearth-baked bread, chamomile, doum-palm fruit, and Middle Eastern herbs. As depicted on Brew Masters, McGovern and Calagione traveled to Cairo to capture a specific saccharomyces yeast strain for the fermentation process.
Birra Etrusca Bronze, released in December 2012, is the latest Ancient Ale. McGovern and Calagione worked with Italian brewers Leo DeVencenzo of Birra del Borgo and Teo Musso of Baladin to examine drinking vessels in 2,800-year-old Etruscan tombs. The ingredients include malted barley, heirloom Italian wheat, hazelnut flour, pomegranates, Italian chestnut honey, Delaware wildflower honey, clover honey, gentian root, and Ethiopian myrrh resin. The final portion of the beer’s name stems from the traditional material used in the fermenting process.
Even with vast accomplishments that wow the academic and beer lover worlds, Dr. Pat continues to muse about the future and therefore contemplates the past. He happily remains a consultant for Dogfish Head and theorizes the origin of their next resurrected drink. Maybe they will return to Africa since the home of early humans still has many untold gifts to bestow upon the modern world. Or perhaps the next beer will stem from a trip to Scandinavia, another region that greatly fascinates the archaeologist. McGovern is interested in researching, and even traveling to, wherever the next adventure on his lifelong journey needs him to go. In the end, he’s really not that different from a certain Harrison Ford character at all.