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Libations: Tapping into the Past and Dreading the Hangover

by Samir S. Patel, Archeology Today November/December 2007
Volume 60 Number 6

Chateau-Jiahu-Dogfish-Head-Craft-Brewed-AlesEarly Neolithic people in Jiahu, a village in China’s Henan Province, invented the earliest known alcoholic beverage. As the staff of this magazine and your guides to the world of archaeology, we felt it was our place–nay, our duty–to tell you how the stuff tastes.

Archaeochemist and ancient wine expert Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology analyzed residue in the pores of 9,000-year-old potsherds found in Jiahu. Using high-powered acronyms like GC-MS, HPLC-MS, and FT-IR, he determined the pots once held ancient booze made with rice, honey, and hawthorn fruit. No one has any idea about the process used to make it, but McGovern recruited the crafty brewers at Dogfish Head in Milton, Delaware, to help reconstruct a palatable version.

The resulting concoction, called Chateau Jiahu, is a thick, lightly carbonated brew the color of cloudy cider. We swirled it around in little plastic cups and took a whiff: hints of rice and sake, a scrumpy aroma from the applelike hawthorn, and the malted scent of a barley-rich beer. The first taste was puzzling–were all those flavors having a street fight or dancing a waltz?

While it was strong, meady, and heavy as a brick, several of us went back for seconds to search for other flavors in its complex bouquet.

“It’s growing on me,” said Ken Feisel, our art director.

“I think it’s perfectly pleasant!” enthused senior editor Eric Powell, halfway through his second cup.

All agreed it was interesting, unusual, and worth trying, but that the yeasty aftertaste–the “fuzz on your tongue,” Feisel called it–was the beverage’s most significant drawback. Fortunately, we ran out before we could report on how a Neolithic Chinese hangover might have felt.

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