Apparently, we’re not the only ones interested in historic beer.
Since the Black Creek Historic Brewery is closed until May, your trusty beer journalist has gone international. While staying in Virginia, I’ve had the chance to try some of the offerings from Dogfish Head Brewery: a craft brewery based in Delaware. They’ve been on the American craft brewing scene since 1995, and in 1999 they started a line of “Ancient Ales.” On board, they have Dr. Patrick McGovern (Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum). With his expertise, Dogfish Head crafts recipes based on chemical analyses of residue found on ancient drinking vessels.
I tried the Chateau Jiahu, released 2006. Jiahu is a Neolithic site in China’s Yellow River Valley, dating back to approximately 7000 BCE. Excavated mostly through the 1980s, it is home to some of the oldest known written records, the oldest playable musical instruments…
…and the oldest fermented beverages.
Excavations at the Jiahu site yielded pottery vessels with high necks, handles, and flaring rims: perfect for storing and serving alcoholic beverages. Because pottery is porous, organic material can seep into the ceramic. Thousands of years later, researchers are still able to analyze that material.
McGovern describes the Jiahu beverage as a sort of “grog,” made from rice (acting like barley), honey, grapes, and hawthorne-tree fruit. So, it was probably like a cross between mead, beer, and wine. However, it’s not quite clear how the rice was used. As with barley, the starches need to be broken down into simple sugars. It may have been malted, but McGovern notes that human saliva has the same effect, meaning that the rice could also be chewed to prepare it for fermentation (this is still done in parts of Asia). Either way, you’d get a lot of husks and debris floating in your brew—hence why a lot of ancient beers were drunk through straws.
I didn’t have to worry about that. While Dogfish Head Ale may be going to older sources than we do at the Black Creek Historic Brewery, they do use modern methods and equipment.
The Chateau Jiahu was a pale golden colour, with a bit of cloudiness and a small, fine head. I smelled fruitiness right away and caught more on the aftertaste, but the sweetness really surprised me. There are no hoppy notes. That’s not surprising, since they wouldn’t be using hops in 7000 BCE China, I’ve just grown accustomed to that type of bitterness. Instead, the honey comes through quite strongly. Mild carbonation was pleasant, and you definitely notice the lightness in flavour and body—something quite different from our barley-based ales.
A note of caution: this beer is 10% ABV. It doesn’t feel like it.
Jiahu isn’t the only site Dogfish Head has explored; they’ve taken inspiration from sites ranging from Turkey to Egypt to Finland. Now, if only we could pair their recipes with our 1860s brewery…that would be one truly historic ale!
For more, check out: