WSW: Ancient Brews Reborn

Apr 11, 2018

Pat McGovern in the Lower Egyptian Gallery of the Penn Museum
Credit Alison Dunlap / University of Pennsylvania Museum

What came first at the dawn of human civilization: bread or beer? Patrick McGovern is betting on beer. The archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia studies the deep history of fermented alcoholic beverages, and has helped recreate several of them. McGovern speaks about his adventures in "paleo-brewing" at Western Michigan University on Thursday, April 12.


McGovern, who's also head of the museum's Biomolecular Archaeology Project and an adjunct professor of anthropology, says humans and their ancestors discovered that they liked drinking alcoholic brews very early. He believes that the desire for them played a significant role in the process that led most people away from nomadic ways of life.

Besides the obvious, mind-altering effects of alcohol, McGovern says the ancients also considered fermented drinks to be medicine and an important part of religion. The latter viewpoint is still reflected today in a number of faith traditions.

Credit W.W. Norton

In his book, Ancient Brews Rediscovered and Recreated (W.W. Norton, 2017), McGovern describes several ancient alcoholic drinks he's brought back to life with help from the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. They include the drink mourners consumed at the funeral feast for the legendary King Midas in what is now Turkey about 2,800 years ago. The book also has tips for home brewers who want to try their hand at exploring ancient brewing traditions.

Today beer, wine, and mead, are well-defined products with a largely standard list of ingredients. But McGovern says ancient brewers weren't so restricted. They could ferment a drink from a wide variety of plants close at hand, from rice, millet, and sorghum in China, to bananas in Africa, to cacao in the Americas. He says that variety is now being reflected in adventurous beers offered by many craft brewers.

McGovern's lecture at WMU starts Thursday, April 12, at 4:30 p.m. in the Political Science Department Library, 3301 Friedmann Hall. It's sponsored by WMU's Department of History. Afterwards, he'll participate in a recreation of the "Midas Feast" at the Kalamazoo Beer Exchange. Tickets are required to attend that event.

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