Brewer has the Midas Touch


Beer: Using academic research it helped with on foods found in the ancient king's tomb, a Delaware pub has produced a drink so popular it's being distributed in 18 states.

July 16, 2002|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. - The beer has always run toward the exotic in the Dogfish Head brew pub, where an old rowboat and canoe hang overhead, connoisseurs come to sample the latest experiment with roasted chicory or organic juniper berry, and families wander in off the beach for crab cakes or salmon.

But things got really interesting when the archaeologists came along.

Suddenly the pub and microbrewery were swept into a 2,700-year-old puzzle involving King Midas, a royal funeral feast in eighth-century-B.C. Phrygia (modern-day Turkey) and an ancient recipe that combines - heaven forbid - beer and wine.

What started as academic research at the University of Pennsylvania into mustard-yellow residue in ancient vessels from the days of the legendary king has produced a drink so popular that it's bottled and sold in 18 states, including Maryland.

Using ingredients known to be available to the Phrygians, the brew, dubbed Midas Touch Golden Elixir, is made with white Muscat grapes, thyme honey, saffron, barley, yeast and water. Hops weren't cultivated in the area at the time, but to satisfy modern legal requirements for beer, some are added.

"We never intended to brew it more than once - we thought of it as a novelty," says Sam Calagione, the brew pub's owner, who made the first batch for an archaeologists dinner at Penn two years ago. The meal re-created the 718 B.C. funerary banquet that researchers say honored the death of either King Midas or his father.

"We had underestimated people's excitement about history," Calagione says. "We were always thinking about innovations, but we learned that people were making amazing things that tasted great two, three-thousand years ago. It kind of put things in perspective."

Calagione, 33, a self-described "beer geek," began brewing beer on the stove of his New York apartment in 1993, one year after graduating from college with a major in English. Two years later, he and his wife, Mariah, picked a spot on this busy beach-town strip, cut the tops off two old kegs, installed propane heaters underneath and opened what was then the smallest commercial brewery in the country.

Meanwhile, worlds away in New York, Elizabeth Simpson was in her third decade studying the largest tomb of Gordion - the capital city of Phrygia, about 60 miles south of Ankara, Turkey - which had been excavated in 1957 by a University of Pennsylvania museum archaeologist, Rodney Young.

The tomb, dating to about 700 B.C., held the remains of a 60- to 65-year-old man believed to be King Midas or his father - not the Midas of Greek legend who turned everything he touched to gold but a real monarch, the most powerful of his time. It was also filled with fine wooden furniture, rich textiles, numerous bronze mixing and serving vessels, and more than 100 bowls, which Young concluded were placed there to be used in the afterlife.

But Young's analysis didn't sit right with Simpson, a professor at New York's Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts and the world's leading expert on the furniture from the Gordion tombs.

So in 1981 she went to Turkey to see for herself and concluded that the vessels and utensils were remains from a funerary banquet, and the food and beverage in them were the mourners' sacrifices to the goddess Matar. The body, she realized, had been on display outside the tomb during the feast and then moved inside, along with the furniture and vessels.

(Some researchers hypothesize that the legend of Midas' touch got started when people mistook the bronze vessels, then new and polished, for gold.)

Particularly intriguing was the fact that residue from the vessels had been sent back and saved by Penn's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. In Young's days, the chemical analysis of the substances was crude. "They had no idea what it was," Simpson says.

By 1997, Simpson was working on final publication of her study on the tomb and figured she'd try once more for an analysis. She called Patrick E. McGovern, a molecular biologist and senior research scientist at the museum.

As it happened, newly developed science, which McGovern calls "molecular archaeology," enabled scientists to chemically analyze the yellow powder, which was once a beverage, and the brown clumpy porous substance, which resembled a dried stew, that had been sitting in paper bags one floor above McGovern's office for 40 years.

"All I had to do was walk up the stairs, and there they were," McGovern says. "It was the easiest excavation I've ever been on."

Reflecting a beam of infrared light off a sample, the scientists analyzed the electron structure of the molecules in the dried beverage. They found tartaric acid and its salts, which point to the presence of grapes; calcium oxalate, which is beerstone (the main precipitate of barley beer); and signs of beeswax, which indicated honey and which - when fermented - becomes mead.

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