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Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages Paperback – Dec 17 2010

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; Reprint edition (Dec 17 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520267982
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520267985
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.9 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 499 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #146,839 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


“McGovern's delving, detailed in this fascinating book, leaves little doubt that humans are born drinkers.”
(New Scientist 2009-12-13)

“(A) magnificent study, skillfully written and well illustrated.”
(Choice 2012-04-01)

“Takes his reader on a world tour, examining the archeological record for alcohol use across continents and cultures.”
(Nature 2009-10-29)

“Highly informative and challenging.”
(California Grapevine 2010-07-01)

“In this engaging book, Patrick McGovern gives us a world tour of the origins of alcoholic beverages.”
(John Gava Law Society Journal 2011-11-01)

"A remarkable book, both erudite and entertaining.”
(Gastronomica 2012-01-01)

From the Inside Flap

"Patrick McGovern has written his masterpiece. He takes us on an engrossing, multifaceted journey through the complex relationships between human cultures and alcoholic beverages of all kinds. In doing so, he develops a new context for human history."—Brian Fagan, author of The Great Warming and Fish on Friday

"Fascinating, wide-ranging and erudite. When it comes to ancient beverages, Patrick McGovern is the dean of the subject."—Tom Standage, author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses and An Edible History of Humanity

“In Uncorking the Past, Patrick E. McGovern charts the enchantment of human beings with alcoholic beverages from their initial discoveries of fermented honey, fruits, and grains to the perfection of elaborate means for producing, storing, transporting, and consuming treasured spirits. McGovern's gaze is truly global, spanning all the continents, but it is also microscopic, penetrating to neural pathways, genes, and molecules. This is a story told with verve and passion, yet one that is endlessly entertaining and highly informative.”—Victor H. Mair, co-author (with Erling Hoh) of The True History of Tea

“An eminently accessible, sweeping, and thought-provoking history of fermented alcohol.”—Max Nelson, author of The Barbarian's Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe

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Inside This Book

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 15 reviews
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
"Our world is awash in ethanol" Nov. 29 2009
By Chambolle - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
So says Patrick McGovern, and this book explains how it got that way. McGovern theorizes that organisms great and small, perhaps from the unicellular to non-human primates to humans, are hard wired to crave the products of sugar fermentation, particularly alcohol. This taste for fermented beverages has been a driving force in the evolution of human biology, agriculture, culture and religion, or so it would seem. McGovern documents this evolution through archeological findings from Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East -- anywhere and everywhere wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages have been made for many thousands of years,from grain, fruit, honey and whatever other raw material mankind could coax into creating intoxicating food and drink. We are, as McGovern has entitled his very first chapter, "Homo Imbibens."

As the book concludes, summing up the theme, "our species' intimate relationship with fermented beverages over millions of years has, in large measure, made us what we are today."

Being neither an archeologist nor a paleontologist, I found some of the copious detail presented in this book to be tough sledding. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating read and worth the effort.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
From the big picture to the tiniest detail Feb. 6 2013
By mrthinkndrink - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Simply an outstanding book of scholarship. McGovern is a scientist who speaks fluent vernacular, which for most of us is a blessing. This is a remarkably inclusive survey of worldwide alcoholic beverage production and consumption from the end of the last ice age through the age of the Greeks. Though much of the book deals with the beginnings and subsequent evolution of wine and beer, he touches on drinks, ceremonies and rituals involving fermentation of myriad fruits, honey and starch laden grains from South America to China to Africa. One can't help but be impressed by the widespread use of alcohol by almost every societal group on earth. The picture painted by the author is of an ancient world practically awash in mixed drinks (beer, wine, and honey mixed together being a common one) and a remarkable diversity of stand alone wine and beer styles, often infused with herbs and flavorings, many hallucinatory, to enable the priests and leaders of early societies to commune with their particular gods and goddesses. These drinks have not only been an integral part of human life for thousands of years but may well have been the impetus behind agricultural domestication, human migration and trade and the spread of dominant cultures.
For any student of the human condition, of the development of ritual and religion, of the emergence of humanity from our earliest hominid ancestors - and certainly for any thoughtful devotee of wine or beer, I highly recommend Uncorking The Past.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Egyptian workers on the Pyramids had a ration of 4 to 5 liters of beer per day. March 20 2015
By lyndonbrecht - Published on
Format: Paperback
This is a fascinating read. He has done archaeology all over the place and lots of analyses of the remains of dregs in pots and containers--dull sounding but that's how we find out what those containers were used for. McGovern says many of those containers were used for beer. He may be a scientist, but he is also a good writer, and while there is some science that many readers may find slow, it is all accessible and helpful in understanding his points.

One important point is that he argues that at least some of the grains that can be turned into beer were not domesticated for food but because of their alcohol-making potential. Maize for example (we Americans call it corn) has sugars that can be made into alcohol. This may seem a wild theory, but he makes a good case for the hypothesis.

He has gotten microbreweries interested in using ancient "recipes" to see what the stuff tastes like. The book is full of odd facts such as that gthe Egyptian workers on the Pyramids had daily rations of 2 to 3 loaves of bread and 4 to 5 liters of beer. Beer of course would have been a rather nutritious food and likely the water was impure.
In vino veritas! (translation: 2 thumbs way up!) Nov. 23 2015
By B. Bunyard - Published on
Format: Paperback
Uncorking the Past: the Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages

Our world is awash in alcohol. In 2003, some 150 billion liters of beer, 27 billion liters of wine, and 2 billion liters of distilled spirits (mainly vodka) were produced worldwide. (That’s the official total and does not take into account any illegal production or that which was produced by the increasingly popular production by home brewers and vintners, for which I am one.) This would equal about 8 billion liters of pure alcohol and is around 20% of the world’s total ethanol production. The other 10% and 70%, respectively, constitute the industrial and burgeoning “biofuel” ethanol. So opens the latest massive work on fermentation history by Patrick E. McGovern.
McGovern is the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Aside from the doubtless mountains of paperwork, incessant fundraising, and other administrative duties, this sounds like my dream job. Additionally, Dr. McGovern is known worldwide as the authority on the history of fermentation.
Historically, peoples of nearly every ethnic group and in every region, save the coldest climes where plants do not produce enough sugars to ferment, have produced fermented beverages. Naturally fermented beverages are quite healthy, especially if unfiltered as the yeast present provides a tremendous amount of protein in addition to the other vitamins and nutrients. Indeed, the alcohol itself is a ready source of carbohydrates and our the human liver is specially equipped to metabolize alcohol, with about 10 percent of its enzymes (including alcohol dehydrogenase) devoted to generating energy from alcohol.
Soon after arising, nearly every civilization in history has set about to come up with ways find something (fruits, grains, honey, even milk) with enough sugar in it to appease Saccharaomyces cerevisiae or some other fungus, and in return obtain alcoholic drink. Rice, hawthorn fruits, and longans in China and Japan. Palm tree sap in Southeast Asia and Africa. Wheat and barley in other parts of Asia. Millet and sorghum in Africa. Grapes … of course, grapes in the Levant, in Greece, in the Roman Empire. Honey in Africa and whenever the Vikings went. And corn in the New World. And of course, this is a very impartial list. McGovern’s book fills in all the gaps with textbook thoroughness.
So which came first: beer or bread? This is the age-old question. And one that the author seems to shed light on convincingly. Firstly, beer is actually more nutritious than bread, thanks again to our “fungal symbiont” (my words—I doubt that humanity would have made it this far without this fungus), which turns a food (grain) consisting of some protein and quite a lot of starch into that which is much higher in protein and all sorts of added B vitamins. Not to mention the added effects on the imbiber’s mind and spirit.
As the human population spread to new regions on the globe, strange new fruits and grain were discovered and utilized. For sustenance, sure, but ways to ferment them, doubtless, came shortly thereafter. In fact, a lack of fermentable plants was not seen as a deterrent, as the milk of livestock could be used. Mare’s milk—higher in sugar than that of other domesticated animals—has long been fermented into koumiss by Central and East Asian peoples. (Indeed, it is unlikely that they would have drank unfermented milk as Central and East Asians lack the enzymes needed to digest milk).
McGovern’s knowledge is so vast that on every topic (for example, grape wine) that he can take the reader on many side trips that, for me, provided the most enjoyment. Viticulture—grape domestication and cultivation—arose in eastern Turkey around 7,000 BC. From there the Eurasian grape has spread across the globe wherever humans have traveled. Indeed, the Eurasian grape now accounts for some ten thousand varieties and 99 percent of the world’s wine. This despite the fact that North America and East Asia have many more native grape species—some with very high sugar content—and yet there is no evidence that any were domesticated before modern times. Even more interesting is the fact that wild grapes are almost never hermaphroditic (male and female parts on the same flower, and thus self fertile). More than 95% of the time wild grape plants, the world over, are males or females. So, the ancients clearly were pretty knowledgeable about plant breeding and had an eye sharp enough to note the tiny floral parts on a rate mutant hermaphrodite plant.
To date, the oldest known fermented beverage comes from the Jiahu of China and dates back 9,000 years. This beverage, a sort of beer – wine combination was made from fermented rice (a grain, thus the beer part) and fruit (wild Chinese grape or hawthorn, or both, the wine part) plus honey. You can even taste this one for yourself! Dr. McGovern and the Dogfish Head Brewery of Delaware have combined forces to make this (and some other) famous ancient brew, calling it Chateau Jiahu, available in specialty beer and wine shops.
Beyond fermentation simply for the sake of making alcohol, fermentation is universally intertwined with humanity. Fermentation is a crucial step in the production of many of our foods from the preservation of meats and sausages, to vegetables (as “pickles”), to the production of chocolate. Fermentation contributes nutrients, flavors, and aromas to food and drink—whether lambic beer, Champagne, cheese, or tofu. It removes potentially harmful alkaloids, helps to preserve by making the pH inhospitable to some microbes and alcohol kills at high enough levels. Furthermore, fermentation makes foods more easily digestible and reduces food preparation times and fuel expenditure. Moreover, alcohol made humans a more social creature, no doubt played a role in the rise of religions and arts, and made possible many (if not all) of man’s greatest creations—the builders of Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramids and temples were paid in bread and beer. In vino veritas!

(Review originally published in FUNGI, 2011, vol 4 no.4.)
Well written and engaging book Feb. 16 2015
By P. Mulloy - Published on
Format: Paperback
Patrick McGovern is the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The techniques of biomolecular archaeology allow McGovern to examine the residues in 10,000 year old pots, jars and vats to determine what was in them. He adds to this extensive research in ancient texts, an understanding of linguistics and experience as a working archaeologist to cull from the past new and richly woven stories of our experience with fermented beverages. He unlocks the mystery of what people were drinking and why from the dawn of civilization. His research into sites in China and the Middle East allowed him with the help of Dogfish Head Brewer Sam Caglione, to recreate alcoholic beverages from our distant past. While his job title sounds formidable, he is an engaging writer and his work does not require a technical background to enjoy. If you have an interest in the history of alcoholic beverages, you will enjoy this book