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Dogfish Head Serves Up Science Along With Beer

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Drinking like our ancestors tastes pretty good, it turns out.

On Thursday night at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery founder Sam Calagione led a beer tasting that doubled as a tour through the history and science of fermented beverages in Cheers To Science, a program of the 2014 World Science Festival. Calagione and McGovern’s business partnership is a marriage of art and science; McGovern brings his biomolecular and chemical expertise to bear, while Calagione provides the brewing and flavor selection skills. Together, the two have attempted to recreate some of the most ancient ales known to mankind.

McGovern (L) and Calagione (R). Credit: Sarah Peavey
McGovern (L) and Calagione (R). Credit: Sarah Peavey

The oldest fermented beverage that we know of was a 9,000-year-old Chinese concotion made from honey, rice, and wild grapes, and drunk from a pottery cup with a straw. The brewing methods used to make this drink would seem shocking to us. People chewed on the rice and then spit it out, letting the enzymes in their saliva break down complex sugars into simpler ones that are happily gobbled up by the yeasts that make alcohol.

As long as humans have had culture, alcohol’s been behind the scenes, granting us temporary euphoria and freedom from inhibitions (for better for worse).  “There is a pleasure cascade of all sorts of different neurotransmitters as you drink alcohol,” McGovern explained.

And humans aren’t the only animal that enjoys getting soused, it turns out; According to McGovern, fruit flies use alcohol to feed their young, in whom the alcohol kills pathogens. So never doubt the healing power of a cold beer.

At the event, attendees sampled three beers, including a special Dogfish ancient ale called Kvasir. The beer has its roots in Scandinavia, where an ancient yet well-preserved casket of a woman was discovered. It’s possible that she was a dancer, priestess, or someone of high status, as she was curiously interred with an alcoholic beverage in a birch container. McGovern and Calagione examined the leftover traces of this brew, and discovered that this particular ancient ale was composed of a mixture of fruit, honey, wheat, and herbs. Deducing the basics of the recipe allowed Dogfish Head to create Kvasir, a modern version of the woman’s drink.

A batch of Kvasir brewed with wild yeast. Credit: Sarah Peavey.
A batch of Kvasir brewed with wild yeast. Credit: Sarah Peavey.

Most ancient beers differ from their modern counterparts in one key aspect: Older beverages included many strains of wild yeast, while a typical modern beer employs just one. Dogfish Head is attempting to hew closer to history with a special version of Kvasir—premiering at the World Science Festival—made with multiple strains of wild yeast.

“We basically made a giant cocktail of the most interesting strains of yeast that we could,” Calagione said. “It’s nice to see how wild beer will go, and this is probably what it tasted like 1,300 years ago.”

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