When looking to the past for old recipes to inspire new products, some talk to their moonshining grandpa or search the family archives. Others read through monastic manuscripts hoping to discover a spirit with divine inspiration. Dogfish Head Founder and President Sam Calagione turns to University of Pennsylvania Museum biomolecular archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern.
One of their most recent projects includes a modern interpretation of two late Archaic pulque-based spirits. According to a recent press release, Dr. McGovern’s recent research focuses on the beginnings of distillation…
Chemical analyses of ancient double-chambered pottery jars, from burials in Colima, Mexico, dating to as early as 1500 B.C., are now in progress, using solid phase microextraction and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Biomarkers for agave and other native American plants, which were likely naturally fermented initially, are sought and compared with the results from modern replica pottery vessels in which agave was distilled. Preliminary results suggest that agave was distilled in the ancient vessels to make a “mezcal.” More ancient vessels need to be analyzed before it can be said that these are the earliest distillation vessels ever discovered, predating the arrival of the Spanish and Filipinos by nearly 3,000 years, who brought the Mediterranean and Asian traditions of stills with them.
Armed with Dr. Pat’s chemical, archaeobotanical, archaeological and ethnohistorical findings and more than 15 years of experience resurrecting ancient fermented beverages, Dogfish created modern interpretations of an early Archaic pulque and two late Archaic pulque-based spirits or mezcals.
So, of course we had some questions! We turned to Justin Williams, of Dogfish Head, to learn more about this product and their fondness for looking way back for recipe inspiration…
First off, “Liquid time capsules,” what is it about looking into the past and rediscovering long forgotten alcoholic relics that tempts your company so much?
In 1995 (yes, Dogfish turns 20 this year!), Dogfish started experimenting with ingredients raided from our brewpub’s kitchen — things like chicory, licorice root, maple syrup and brown sugar. People called us freaks and heretics for messing with brewing tradition. But long before a medieval German purity law mandated that beer be made with only water, hops and barley, ancient brewers made the most of the ingredients they had on hand, and their beers were as colorful and creative as their cultures. That’s what we set out to explore with our Ancient Ales series.
Market research and consumer demand doesn’t seem to be a factor for a millennia old brew or spirit. From a business perspective what kind of benefits and drawbacks are there for these kind of products?
The short answer is we brew the beers we want to drink and hope that adventurous beer lovers will join our journey. Just about every Dogfish beer starts as a small batch at our brewpub, and when people are paying 4 or 5 dollars a pint, they’re going to tell you what they think of it. That’s our version of a focus group. We don’t have a room full of MBAs and we don’t run million-dollar ad campaigns, we just try to keep up a conversation with hardcore craft beer lovers.
Maize chewing, give us some science on this.
This is a traditional South American technique used to make fermented beverages. When a high-starch vegetable like corn is chewed, the enzymes in human saliva break down the starches into fermentable sugars. So traditional brewers chew the corn up, spit it out and form small patties that go into the mash of a beer. Since it’s then boiled, it’s perfectly safe and hygienic.
How does the production process work on a project like this? Do you approach it from a methodic scientific perspective, or do these time capsules primarily provide inspiration?
We strive to be as authentic as possible. Dr. Pat’s research and travels provide us with information about what ingredients were used in these ancient beverages, and we go out of our way to hunt down these often obscure ingredients. We aim to honor all of the information we can gather.
In your opinion, which ancient culture had the best bar scene?
Hmmm. Good question. The 9,000-year-old dig site in China that inspired our oldest Ancient Ale (and the oldest fermented beverage known to man), Chateau Jiahu, also contained the first evidence of musical instruments. They were hollowed-out bird bones used like flutes. Music, beer … you know they were having a big old hootenanny!