Extreme Fermented Beverages


The history of the human species and civilization itself is, in many ways, the history of fermented beverages.  Drawing upon recent archaeological discoveries, molecular and DNA sleuthing, and the texts and art of long-forgotten peoples, Patrick McGovern takes us on a fascinating odyssey back to the beginning when early humanoids probably enjoyed a wild fruit or honey wine. We follow the course of human ingenuity in domesticating plants of all kinds—particularly the grapevine in the Middle East, rice in China, and the cacao (chocolate) tree in the New World–learning how to make and preserve wines, beers, and what are sometimes called “extreme fermented beverages” that are comprised of many different ingredients.  Early beverage-makers must have marveled at the seemingly miraculous process of fermentation.  When they drank the beverages, they were even more amazed—they were mind-altering substances, medicines, religious symbols, and social lubricants all rolled into one.  The perfect drink, it turns out, has not only been a profound force in history, but may be fundamental to the human condition itself.

The speaker will illustrate the biomolecular archaeological approach by describing the discovery of the most ancient, chemically-attested alcoholic beverage in the world, dating back to about 7000 B.C.  Based on the analyses of some of the world’s earliest pottery from Jiahu in the Yellow River valley of China, a mixed fermented beverage of rice, hawthorn fruit/grape, and honey was reconstructed.  The laboratory’s most recent finding is a fermented beverage made from the fruit pod of the cacao tree, as based on analyses of ca. 1200 B.C. pottery sherds from the site of Puerto Escondido in Honduras.  As the earliest chemically attested instance of chocolate in the Americas, this beverage might well have been the incentive for domesticating the cacao tree.  Like grape and rice wine, chocolate “wine”—in time made only from roasted beans–went on to become the prerogative of royalty and the upper class, and a focus of religion.  Some of these beverages, including the earliest alcoholic beverage from China (Chateau Jiahu), the mixed drink served at the “King Midas funerary feast (Midas Touch), and the chocolate beverage (Theobroma), have been re-created by Dogfish Head Brewery, shedding light on how our ancestors made them and providing a taste sensation and a means for us to travel back in time.