Aged 9,000 Years, Ancient Beer Finally Hits Stores
Dogfish Head brewery is known for making exotic beer with ingredients like crystallized ginger or water from Antarctica, so it might not sound surprising that one of its recent creations is a brew flavored simply by grapes and flowers. It's not the recipe that makes this beer so special; it's where that recipe was found: a Neolithic burial site in China.
Chateau Jiahu is a time capsule from 7,000 B.C., but to hear Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione talk about what beer was actually like back then, it's not the kind of thing that makes you say "Hey, pass me another ice-cold ancient ale!"
"Probably, all beer thousands of years ago -- to our modern palates -- would have tasted spoiled," Calagione says. "In fact, in a lot of hieroglyphics, people are shown drinking beer using straws because they were trying to avoid the chunks of solids and wild yeast."
So how do you go from "chunks of wild yeast" to a beer that you can get at your local store? You don't start with a brewery. You start with Dr. Patrick McGovern.
Scraping The Bottom Of The Beer Barrel
McGovern is a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He studies fermented beverages -- otherwise known as booze -- by analyzing the ancient pots that once held them.
"We use techniques like infrared spectrometry, gas chromatography and so forth," he explains. McGovern helps Dogfish Head revive long-dead brews by figuring out what used to be inside the ancient pottery he comes across.
About 10 years ago, he set out to find some of this primordial crockery on a trip to China. In one town, he found pottery from an early Neolithic burial site. The pieces were about 9,000 years old -- as were the skeletons they were found with.
The Neolithic period, which began about 12,000 years ago, is thought to be about the time when humans started settling down, raising crops -- and apparently getting a little tipsy. McGovern suspects that once humans stayed put, it didn't take them long to discover the fermentation process that led to the world's first alcohol.
The molecular evidence told McGovern the vessels from China once contained an alcoholic beverage made of rice, grapes, hawthorn berries and honey.
"What we found is something that was turning up all over the world from these early periods," he says. "We don't have just a wine or a beer or a mead, but we have like a combination of all three."
Ancient Brews For Troubled Times
That's where Dogfish Head comes in. The Delaware-based brewery owns a tiny but respected sliver of the U.S. beer market, which Calagione says it earned by being a risk-taker. Dogfish and McGovern have produced other ancient beverages, including their Midas Touch brew, teased from pottery found in King Midas' 2,700-year-old tomb.
But, like Calagione says, Jiahu is different. It's "the oldest-known fermented recipe in the history of mankind."
This year, Dogfish Head will brew about 3,000 cases of Jiahu -- a small batch by commercial brewing standards. At $13 for a wine-size bottle, Jiahu is about six times the cost of Budweiser. Luckily, Calagione says, his sales of Jiahu and other specialty brews have actually increased during the recession.
"What we do see in this economy is that people probably can't afford a new SUV or a new vacation home, but they can surely afford to trade up to a world class beer," he says.
And while Jiahu may not be cheap, it's a lot easier to get than a plane ticket to Neolithic China.
GUY RAZ, host:
A few months ago, we spoke to an author who wrote a book about how the British stole Chinese tea. They planted it in India and turned tea-making into a massive global industry.
Well, the Germans, the Belgians, the Czechs, all great brewmasters, may owe a debt to the Chinese as well, because 9,000 years ago, the Chinese were making beer. Now there's some debate over who invented beer. But there's no doubt that the Chinese stuff is among the oldest. And a brewery in Delaware called Dogfish Head worked with an archaeologist to decode that recipe. The result is a beer called Chateau Jiahu.
We sent our producer Brad Horn to find out how they did it.
BRAD HORN: Chateau Jiahu is a time capsule from 7,000 B.C., but to hear Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione talk about what beer was actually like back then, it's not really the kind of thing that makes you say, hey, pass me another ice-cold ancient ale.
Mr. SAM CALAGIONE (Owner, Dogfish Head): Probably, all beer thousands of years ago, to our modern palates, would have tasted spoiled. In fact, people would drink it out of a straw, and that's because they were trying to avoid the chunks of solids and wild yeast and stuff that was in it.
HORN: So how do you go from chunks of wild yeast to a beer that you can get at your local store? You don't start with Sam Calagione or Dogfish Head brewery. You start with Dr. Patrick McGovern.
Dr. PATRICK McGOVERN (Biomolecular Archaeologist, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology): I'm the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
HORN: Who, like he said, is a biomolecular archaeologist. He studies fermented beverages - in other words, booze - by analyzing the pots that held the drinks thousands of years ago.
Dr. McGOVERN: So we use techniques like infrared spectrometry, mass spectrometry and so forth.
HORN: Dr. McGovern helps Dogfish Head revive long-dead brews using modern tools to figure out what used to be in the ancient pottery he comes across. About 10 years ago, he set out to find some of this primordial crockery on a trip to China.
Dr. McGOVERN: Well, I went to a town called Yangshao(ph), where they had all the pottery collected from this early Neolithic site.
HORN: Which translates to pottery that's about 9,000 years old. And it was found in a burial ground next to 9,000-year-old skeletons. The Neolithic period started about 12,000 years ago and is thought to be when humans started doing things like settling down, raising crops, and apparently getting a little tipsy.
Dr. McGovern thinks that when humans stayed in one place long enough, they were able to discover the process of fermentation that led to the world's first alcohol. The Chinese archaeologists allowed Dr. McGovern to bring the ancient pots back to Philadelphia with him.
Dr. McGOVERN: And then we began doing our analyses.
HORN: Where he uncovered molecular evidence that the vessels contained an alcoholic beverage made of rice, grapes, hawthorn berries, honey and chrysanthemum flowers.
Dr. McGOVERN: What we found was something that was turning up all over the world from these very early periods is that we don't have just a wine or a beer or a mead, but we have, like, a combination of all three.
HORN: And this is where Dogfish Head comes in. Dogfish owns a tiny but respected sliver of the U.S. beer market, just 120th of 1 percent according to Calagione, and they've earned that sliver by being risk takers.
Dogfish has produced other ancient brews with Dr. McGovern, like their Midas Touch beer, which is based on molecular analysis of pottery found in what is claimed to be King Midas' 2,700-year-old tomb.
But, like Calagione says, Jiahu is different.
Mr. CALAGIONE: It's the oldest known fermented recipe in the history of mankind.
HORN: So Calagione and Dogfish brewers set out to recreate what might just be the world's first alcoholic beverage. The biggest difference between what Neolithic humans probably drank and what you can buy today is that Jiahu contains barley malt, which makes it more commercially viable, less grog-like, more beer-like.
At the Dogfish brewery, surrounded by giant tanks of beer, Calagione and brewer Bryan Selders are making Jiahu by pouring bucketfuls of fermentables into a shiny 10,000-gallon tank.
Mr. BRYAN SELDERS: It's rice and malt. Rice, malt, honey, grapes, hawthorn fruit. Correct.
HORN: Which is brought to a boil and then left to ferment for a month. This year, Dogfish Head will brew about 3,000 cases of Jiahu, a small batch by commercial brewing standards. At $13 for a wine-size bottle, Jiahu is about six times the cost of Budweiser. But Calagione is actually seeing sales of Jiahu and his other specialty brews increase during the recession.
Mr. CALAGIONE: In this economy, a person probably can't treat themselves, the average person, to a new SUV or a new vacation home, but they can surely afford to trade up to world-class beer.
HORN: Jiahu isn't cheap, especially for a beer, but it's a lot cheaper than a plane ticket to Neolithic China.
Brad Horn, NPR News.
RAZ: Okay, I'm in the studio. I've got a tall amber bottle of Jiahu beer right in front of me. Brad Horn is next to me. You're back from your hardship assignment tasting beer, Brad. And I hope you got some additional combat pay for all the danger you faced.
HORN: Yeah, I'm in discussions with accounting about that.
RAZ: Okay. All right. So you got two frosty glasses here for us. Shall I do the honors?
HORN: Yeah. Go for it.
(Soundbite of pouring beer)
RAZ: Okay. While I'm pouring, Brad, tell me what I should expect to taste.
HORN: Well, if you were having this, like, 9,000 years ago, when this was brewed back in China, it would have been something like a, like I said, a groggy mix of grape wine and honey. But they don't think that would really appeal to a modern-day beer drinker. So they changed the recipe and basically you should taste really a sweet beer with hints of grape and hawthorn fruit and honey.
RAZ: And what's hawthorn fruit again?
HORN: It's a berry from the hawthorn tree that's pretty common in Western Asia.
RAZ: I got it. Okay. Shall we try it?
RAZ: Okay. Here it goes. (Clink) Ahh, as they say. Not bad. Not bad. I do - it's very fruity.
RAZ: Grapey, honey.
HORN: Yeah. Tastes a little bit like a wine beer.
RAZ: Yeah. Like a - kind of like an alcoholic cream soda.
RAZ: Pretty good.
HORN: Yeah, I like it too.
RAZ: That's producer Brad Horn, sometimes known as our chief very special senior international beer correspondent.
Brad, thanks so much.
HORN: Sure. Thank you, Guy.
RAZ: And if you like to see photographs of the Dogfish Head brewery making this year's batch of Chateau Jiahu, head to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.