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Uncorking Extreme Beverages at the Getty Villa

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We’d have stayed awake in more of our college classes if the lectures were as informative and as entertaining as the program/tasting Uncorking the Past: Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages this past weekend at The Getty Villa.

Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, addressed a packed house on Sunday afternoon and discussed how our ancestors weren't teetotalers. Alcoholic beverages have been a part of human culture for thousands of years.

He and his team, with the brewing expertise of the Delaware-based Dogfish Head Brewery, re-created ancient beverages by studying the molecules in leftover shards of pottery and earthenware in funerary and burial sites in Turkey, China and Honduras. He led the attendees around the globe, and at the end of the evening, they were given the opportunity to taste what he was talking about.

McGovern's lecture began in Turkey at the purported site of King Midas's burial. The excavation revealed that the beverage was a concoction of grape wine, honey mead, barley beer, and so Dogfish Head recreated the drink Midas Touch with saffron, muscat grapes, malt and honey for a smooth and tasty homage to the past.

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The oldest documented alcoholic beverage, McGovern said, dates back to 7000 BC, found in Jiahu, China. Using similar ingredients found through testing the Jihau site, Dogfish Head produced Chateau Jihau in 2006, with brown rice syrup, orange blossom honey, muscat grape, barley malt, and hawthorn berry. It's an intensely sweet beer.

The Theobroma brewery is a fermented beverage made from the fruit pod of the cacao tree, based on analysis of pottery shards from a site in Puerto Escondido, Honduras, dating to about 1200 BC. Like grape and rice wine, this chocolate "wine" became associated with royalty and the upper class, and a focus of religion. The modern version uses cocoa powder and cocoa nibs, honey, chilies and annatto (fragrant tree seeds). The beer has a definitely spicy finish, unlike many other beers that use chocolate in its batch.

While we may never know what the ancient drinks really tasted like, these Dogfish Head brews, paired with the context provided by McGovern, made for memorable arm chair traveling at the Getty Villa.

If you're now bummed you missed the tasting, don't fret. Next month the Villa presents At the Roman Table: A Culinary Adventure with a lecture and four-course meal inspired by ancient Roman recipes. $75 per person.