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Ancient Brews

Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-Created

Patrick E. McGovern
W. W. Norton
352 pp.
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Over the course of a long career, Patrick McGovern has become an archaeological celebrity of sorts, collaborating with researchers around the world to analyze humanity’s chemical footprints—most famously, those we leave behind in the pursuit of fermentation. In the introduction to Ancient Brews, McGovern describes our search for a good nip as essentially a biological drive to consume a universal substance—the genetic underpinnings of which we share with many species, including other primates, honey bees, fruitflies, and zebra finches, just to name a few.

Outside academia, McGovern’s work (if not necessarily McGovern himself) has also gained recognition as a result of his long-standing partnership with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery. Working, and sometimes globetrotting, together, McGovern and Calagione have, over the years, labored to recreate a series of “ancient ales” based on chemical signatures from many diverse archaeological sites. The core of Ancient Brews comprises short histories for seven such concoctions (plus a bonus cocktail!) from times and places as diverse as Neolithic China, Iron Age Anatolia, and Pre- through Postclassic Mesoamerica.

Chapter by chapter, McGovern presents the process of moving from archaeological discovery to contemporary re-creation, providing readers with cultural histories and carefully describing the trials and tribulations of archaeological science. McGovern repeatedly emphasizes the precariousness of reconstructing the past from limited data and entertainingly describes the contemporary negotiations involved in reproducing ancient brews that are sufficiently “authentic” yet still palatable. To really bring the process home to readers, brewing formulas are provided at the end of each chapter, along with recipes for various pairing dishes (these being only very loosely “archaeological”).

For all that is good and fun in Ancient Brews, however, several critiques must be made. As is unfortunately common with such sweeping overviews, there is a tendency to perpetuate cultural essentialisms and elide the temporal and spatial diversity of human societies. A typical example, from within this reviewer’s purview, is that many of Europe’s pre-Roman inhabitants are inaccurately identified, in both explicit and implicit terms, as “Celtic.”

Certain information given was also incorrect or internally inconsistent. For instance, the Etruscans are first identified as proto-Celtic and then Celtic (they were neither linguistically nor materially “Celtic,” although they traded with, and became eventually entangled with, Celtic peoples). The Etruscan language is then correctly, but contradictorily, identified as non–Indo-European.

Ancient Brews falls into a genre of cross-cultural comparison that, rooted in a sociobiological tradition, focuses on the necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, conditions for humanity’s love of all things fermented. This risks implicitly reducing the diversity of human practices and beliefs around fermented beverages to, for instance, functional, economic, or biodeterministic explanations.

Despite these shortcomings, Ancient Brews is an excellent example of science outreach: honest about the limits of research, forthright about the tentative nature of results, and demonstrative of how scientific research can be a personal passion.

About the author

Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA