Meanwhile, the much-publicized collaboration between Dr. McGovern and the brewers of Dogfish Head has resulted in several brews inspired by ancient counterparts. Dogfish’s Chateau Jiahu, a beer based on organic material in 9,000 year-old Chinese pottery, was brewed with rice, grapes and hawthorn fruit. “After we did our chemical analysis,” says McGovern, “archaeobotanists corroborated our results. We are quite sure that our results will hold up,” but then cautions that these are “not absolute sciences.”
And this leads us to the question; How long have humans have been fermenting? Alcohol-producing organisms likely existed on Earth 4 billion years ago. Consider that animals from birds to bears to elephants know how to source alcohol. “Even deer know about [hard] cider” from rotting apples, say cider maker Ria Windcaller.
What this adds up to is that domesticated brews could be far older than even 9 millennia, possibly into Paleolithic times. “Unfortunately,” says McGovern, “right now we don’t have the tools or the recovery methods to get organic materials from that period.”
Much research has gone into the earliest known barley beers, which seem to have originated around present-day Egypt, Iran and Iraq. The “Hymn to Ninkasi” dates from 1,800 B.C. It praises the goddess of beer, and in a roundabout way describes part of the brewing process for Sumerian kaš. Hard barley bread (“bappir”) was softened and fermented. The no-doubt lumpy brew was consumed from urns through straws. Chemical evidence dating to 3,000 B.C. indicates even earlier brewing.
Anchor Brewing and Scottish & Newcastle even made one-off commercial versions of the drink. This summer Dogfish will release their interpretation of a similar brew dubbed Ta Henket. It is fermented with wild yeast captured in an Egyptian date grove, but will still likely be on the tame side, as all modern renditions seem to be.