Creating a beer fit for King Midas

Patrick McGovern's idea of a great beer is something that comes from an ancient tomb. The author of Uncorking the Past is scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. McGovern analyzed a sample of a 2,700-year-old beverage found at the funerary feast of King Midas or his father and challenged microbrewers to find inspiration in the combination of barley beer, honey mead and grape wine.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I understand that you found a connection between beer and King Midas, he of the golden touch.

Patrick McGovern
Patrick McGovern

Patrick McGovern: The basic story is that the University of Pennsylvania Museum excavated a tomb in central Turkey back in 1957. It was at the site of Gordian -- you've heard of the Gordian Knot that was cut by Alexander the Great and he became ruler of all of Asia? This is the capital city of the Phrygians. The most visible feature at the site is a large mound that covers a tomb. It is very wonderfully appointed with the largest Iron Age drinking set that has ever been found, for example.

It is of a period in which Midas -- there was a real King Midas -- might have lived and been buried in or his father Gordias. There was a funerary feast that was held at the burial of the king. Then leftovers in the drinking set, for example, were deposited with the king in the tomb.

They were sitting in the University of Pennsylvania Museum for the last 40 years until somebody suggested I get involved in doing an analysis of those residues. It was one of the easiest excavations I was ever on. I just had to walk up two flights of stairs and there were the original residues sitting in the bags that the American excavators had used to collect them in back in 1957.

LRK: What did you discover?

PMG: We went to work and were able to focus in on fingerprint or biomarker compounds that tell us what the original natural products were that went into the beverage.

In this case we could discern compounds that pointed to beeswax that was present there. Where you have beeswax, that is a good sign that you originally had honey because you never can totally filter out all the beeswax. Then there was a compound called tartaric acid, which is found in large amounts in the Middle East only in grapes. Then there were compounds that pointed to barley. So we had a combination of barley beer, honey mead and grape wine. This is like mixing together everything in the kitchen sink.

We were very interested in whether this is even palatable. What we planned to do, and which we did do ultimately in the year 2000, was to have a whole recreation of the ancient funerary feast for Midas or his father. The tomb itself is dated about 750-700 B.C. in that range, so 2,700 years ago they had this fantastic funerary feast. We wanted to recreate that.

Each year we had a tasting with Michael Jackson, not the entertainer but the famous beer and scotch authority. He would come here for a tasting at the Penn Museum and a lot of microbrewers would come along as well to show off their wares. I explained that we had come up with this very strange beverage and if any microbrewers wanted to get more details, they could come to my laboratory the next morning at 9 a.m. For a bunch of microbrewers who have been up all night, that might be expecting a little too much. But the next morning there were like 25 microbrewers at the doorstep to my laboratory. They all went back to their breweries and started churning out these strange concoctions.

LRK: So which one won?

PMG: Ultimately Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. I was already somewhat predisposed to him because I had just by chance had his Shelter Pale Ale. I was really amazed at how aromatic and almost like wine some of his beers were.

I suggested to him that for the bittering agent maybe try saffron because hops were not something that were available until much later in northern Europe. He was willing to try that. It turned out to be a fantastically aromatic beverage. The only problem is that saffron happens to be the most expensive spice in the world. So this turned out to be the most expensive beer that he'd ever made.

This ultimately became the Midas Touch, which appropriately enough went on to win many gold medals. It was the golden touch.

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