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On the Paleo Diet? Enjoy a Beer

Our ancestors likely got into fermented grains and fruit, so drink up.

You can stick to the Paleo diet while still indulging in beer and wine—just like your ancestors did. (Shaiith/istock)
Photo: Shaiith/istock Chop

Our ancestors likely got into fermented grains and fruit, so drink up.

It turns out that you can thank your ancestors for your eye color, your ability to make a fire with only minimal grunting, and your love of booze—especially beer and wine.

A lot has been written about how the Paleo diet isn’t really all that similar to what our ancestors actually ate. (More on that here and here and here.) Most importantly, it turns out that the “no grain-based beer” rule for the Paleo diet may be bunk too. Our ancestors were boozers, turning both fruit and grain into fermented goodness. 

Dr. Pat McGovern, a bimolecular archeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied ancient spirits for the past quarter century. By testing the remnants of wine or beer found on shards of pottery, he’s been able to piece together much of what our ancestors drank, which he writes about in his 2009 book Uncorking The Past.

“Sugar and alcohol would have been two of the main parts of a Paleolithic diet,” he says. During the Paleolithic era, whether humans actively tried to create fermented beverages or not, they certainly drank them. “There’s a natural yeast in honey that starts to ferment into mead, so honey mead was probably one of the first alcoholic beverages,” he says. 

If human saliva had mixed with collected grasses or grains, those may have eventually fermented into a beer-like drink. He adds, “Wine was also there right from the start; it’s very easy to make.” He theorizes that as Paleolithic people gathered grapes, the ones on the bottom of their vessels likely got squished. Those juices would have turned into wine as the grapes on the top were eaten first. By the time the grapes were gone, the juice at the bottom would have been quite potent.  

Fast forward a few thousand years and our ancestors had booze making down to an art. Nine thousand years ago, Chinese brewers were fermenting a mix of rice, honey and hawthorn fruit. Meanwhile, in the Middle East barley was being fermented into beers. If you’re wondering what these ancient concoctions would have tasted like, rest easy, craft brewer Dogfish Head is way ahead of you. 

The Delaware-based brewery partnered with McGovern a few years ago to produce its line of ancient ales. After McGovern figures out the molecular breakdown on the pottery shards, he develops a list of ingredients for Sam Calagione, the founder and head brewer of Dogfish Head. Calagione turns the list into something drinkable. “Our Midas Touch [made from vessels found inside the tomb of King Midas] is Dog Fish Head’s most medal awarded beer of any beer we’ve ever done. It shows that ancient recipes can still impact modern beer,” says Calagione. 

Calagione says that the definition of beer being only water, hops, and barley is a recent (in the grand scheme of things) one. In 1516 a German law called the Reinheitsgebot mandated that beer be made of only these three ingredients. “It was an early form of art censorship,” he says. Luckily, beer’s dark ages are over; fruit and honey are making their way back into brews. 

If you’re on the Paleo diet, these brews are probably pretty in line with what our ancestors would have consumed. So go ahead, have another. Science says it’s okay.


Filed To: Adventure / Wine, Beer, and Spirits / Nutrition / Food and Drink