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January 06, 2015

Penn researcher discovers recipes for ancient brews

Barley for the win.

Resurrecting ancient recipes is more than a fad; it’s a pastime. 

Just ask Pat McGovern, a k a "Dr. Pat," the scientific director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health. McGovern is the mystery ingredient in many of Dogfish Head Brewery ancient empire-inspired beers. 

For the coolest job ever, McGovern reconstructs original alcoholic beverages by looking at shards of old pottery stained with spice remnants, according to New Scientist

Original ales from the days of the Pharaohs and before regularly make the beer lineup at the Rehoboth, Del., brewery, including, notably, Midas Touch beer and Ta Henket (ancient Egyptian for “bread beer”).

Of the award-winning Midas Touch, McGovern says:

“We knew the three basic components – grapes, barley and honey – but we didn't know what the bittering agent was… [Dogfish Head's] beverage was on the sweet side, but the saffron gave it aromatic properties.”

Over the course of his research, McGovern discovered the recipe for the world’s oldest barley beer, dating back to Iran, circa 3400 BC. 

While the seasoned researcher might stick out among a younger generation of beer geeks and foodies, his works fit in with a general longing for the past. So-called 'ancient grains' like barley that help revive historical ales are now being marketed to a mass audience.

Take Cheerios, for instance. A new variety called Cheerios + Ancient Grains will be on shelves this month. In addition to wheat, the cereal contains quinoa, Kamut wheat and spelt. 

Spelt. My childhood watching the 'Rosie O'Donnell Show' over a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios feels very far away from me now.

Maria Speck, author of 'Ancient Grains for Modern Meals,' says ancient grains can also be called, boringly, whole grains. Or, uh, just grains. According to NPR,

"No one seems to know who first came up with the term 'ancient grains.' It certainly has little basis in history or botany. Spelt or quinoa or millet aren't older than oats or regular wheat; they're just more hard to find, and they've been relatively neglected by crop breeders."

What certifies an ale like Midas Touch as authentic is its unique blend of ingredients, which McGovern has made a career of finding out. So, barley is just as 'ancient' as King Midas --  in fact, it's necessarily older --  but it's no more ancient than just about any other grain in the field. 

Never mind the words: Restaurants like High Street on Market in Philly work their age-old grains to their advantage. High Street serves an ancient grains salad with farro, a complement to master baker Alexander Bois’ specialty loaves made with rye and spelt flours. Bois, who studied fermentation processes as a biochemistry major in college, originally set out to brew beer for a living.

Ancient's nothing new, or particularly old, for that matter, but it does represent a growing interest in choosing food based on history and cultural context.  

Without beer as payment, the slaves who built the pyramids would likely have revolted. 

“I don’t know if fermented beverages explain everything, but they help explain a lot about how cultures have developed,” McGovern said. “You could say that kind of single-mindedness can lead you to over-interpret, but it also helps you make sense of a universal phenomenon.”