The Beer Archaeologist

Patrick McGovern is a professor of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies fermented beverages. His work reveals their long history. Just like modern nutritionists, modern archaeologists overlook this:

Many of McGovern’s most startling finds stem from other archaeologists’ spadework; he brings a fresh perspective to forgotten digs, and his “excavations” are sometimes no more taxing than walking up or down a flight of stairs in his own museum to retrieve a sherd or two. Residues extracted from the drinking set of King Midas—who ruled over Phrygia, an ancient district of Turkey—had languished in storage for 40 years before McGovern found them and went to work. The artifacts contained more than four pounds of organic materials, a treasure—to a biomolecular archaeologist—far more precious than the king’s fabled gold.

Beer figures more in his work than wine. I’m not surprised. I’m a beer snob. The best beers at a recent beer tasting were far better than the best wines at similar wine tastings. The upper-class preference for wine over beer may have the same explanation as earlier upper-class preferences for white rice over  brown rice (rich Japanese got beriberi more than poor Japanese) and white bread over dark bread. Or it may also have something to do with the fact that cheap beer in America is terrible.

Thanks to Melissa McEwen.

9 Replies to “The Beer Archaeologist”

  1. > “I’m a beer snob.”

    That data point might help explain why I couldn’t personally reproduce your “complex tastes are better” claim.

    I recently went to a beer tasting run by a beer snob. There were a couple dozen beers available that were supposed to represent the widest possible variety of types. The problem I had with all of them was that they “tasted like beer”. The only thing called “beer” I find somewhat tasty (rather than wince-worthy) is a Belgian Lambic which tastes *nothing* like beer – it tends to taste like a strawberry wine cooler.

    Do you have any suggestions for *learning* to like beer? Or to at least tolerate it?

    1. how to learn to like beer: first you must learn to like the taste of alcohol. That happens just by drinking alcoholic beverages. if you already like the taste of alcohol, I’m puzzled.

  2. Beer is an acquired tatse. People, or at least men, used to acquire it late in adolescence – thougn I must say that many Brits no longer acquire it and so drink lager instead, largely muck in the style of cheap American beer. If even that is too manly for them then they drink spirits with ‘orrible additives.

  3. Beer is the great summer thirst quencher. How good it tastes right now in the northern hemisphere! But I usually stop and switch to wine around mid-September.

  4. I don’t much care for the taste of alcohol generally but I like the taste of wine, especially white wine. And can drink some dessert-type liquors. I have no trouble at all drinking wine on social occasions.

    When you say “The best beers at a recent beer tasting were far better than the best wines at similar wine tastings.” – My contrary sense is that all beers taste more-or-less bad – it’s a chore to try to finish even *one* bottle of (any variety of) beer. Whereas all wines taste…fine. Some taste pretty good. Wines that are considered especially “good” don’t taste noticeably better than average. In blind taste testings even experts can’t reliably tell the difference between an expensive wine and a cheap one – it’s mostly about expectation – so at a restaurant I tend to go with the cheap one.

    Anyway, put me down as a data point: I like wine over beer because beer reliably tastes terrible, though I’ve tried “good” beers. (Beer is fine as a food ingredient, just not as a drink.)

  5. When people say they don’t like beer, I always assume it’s the bitterness from the hops that is bothering them. Good American craft beer is usually incredibly hoppy unless they are imitating a European style and using noble hops. And on the other side you have cheap American beer that is bland because it is brewed with a huge proportion of rice and not so great.

    But I think non-beer drinkers might have the best luck trying a Belgian or English ale that tends towards being malty and spicy or nutty and hides the bitterness and alcohol well. Leffe Blond and Fuller’s London Pride are two that might be worth a shot and aren’t hard to find.

    I worry about drinking beer a lot thought, because the hops really are strongly estrogenic:

    My new interest is to track down some of these traditional Scottish-style ales being brewed by Williams Bros, where in lieu of hops they use either heather or Scots pine to flavor the beer. I’ve heard they are very unusual and drinkable!

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