I have sipped the nectar that moistened the dying lips of the fabled King Midas.
Sipping 2,700-year-old nectar – now there’s something you don’t get to do every day.
It happened Wednesday night in a Center City reincarnation of the Phrygian king’s funeral feast. Actually, this was just appetizers – goat meat, figs and cheeses served at Monk’s Cafe. But the brew, recreated by Dogfish Head Brewery of Lewes, Del., was presumably the same drink Midas would have sucked down before kicking the bucket back in 700 B.C.
Yeah, that King Midas, the Donald Trump of the Iron Age who turned everything he touched – including his daughter – into gold. Only that was myth. The real King Midas was not an alchemist, though he did rule from an ancient city called Gordion in what is now west-central Turkey.
For 50 years, archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania Museum have been poking through the remarkably well-preserved artifacts taken from the old king’s burial mound.
Among the relics: 157 bronze drinking vessels.
Now, you or I would take one look at those cups, polish ’em up with a little Tarn-X and maybe sell them on eBay.
The Penn scientists didn’t even wash them out. Instead, they’ve spent decades studying them – especially the flaky organic residue inside. Last December, researcher Patrick McGovern announced that a new high-tech analysis had determined the contents:
Calcium oxalate, which is present in barley beverages.
Tartaric acid, which occurs in grapes.
Beeswax, from honey.
Barley. . .grapes. . .honey – the cups had been filled with a mixture of beer, wine and mead.
To me, that sounds like Mrs. Midas got stuck cleaning up after a poker game and poured all the leftover booze into one bottle. I’m surprised they didn’t find cigar butts in there, too.
But McGovern insisted his tests showed the Phyrgians did, indeed, down a mix of equal portions of beer, wine and mead.
“The guess is that what we have in Midas’ tomb is related to a European drink that his people brought from the Balkans,” said McGovern, who studies food as a way of understanding ancient cultures.
“When you consider the process of making them, and the mind-altering effects of consuming them,” he continued, “fermented beverages really reflect the culture to a huge degree, socially, religiously and economically. “
Which makes sense, if you think of America as the Budweiser of human civilization.
Once the scientists determined the mixture, the task of recreating it went to Sam Calagione, whose Dogfish Head specializes in offbeat beer recipes.
“It’s the most expensive beer we’ve ever made,” Calagione said. “To make it as authentic as possible, we imported thyme honey from Italy and white muscat grapes – not extract – from California. “
Instead of hop flowers, the brew was spiced with costly Indian saffron.
It’s only mildly carbonated and tips the scales at 7.5 percent alcohol – about halfway between beer and wine.
Both Calagione and McGovern were happy with the result. Me, too, though it tasted more like wine than beer – smooth, without the bite that often accompanies a honey brew.
What really struck me, though, was not the taste, nor even the science that led to its re-creation. It was the mere fact that, on this night in a Center City bar, a small group of beer fans was sharing a beverage that mankind has been brewing and drinking for centuries.
As McGovern noted, we’ve been getting buzzed since the first time a cave dude dipped his hand into a fallen tree and tasted a mouthful of fermented honey. He has no doubt that, once we learned to domesticate barley in 7000 or 8000 B.C., it was beer – not bread – that people made first.
Which is why he has a mild grumble with Calagione’s name for this beer: Origin Ale.
“At 2,700 years old, I don’t think you can really call it ‘Origin,’ ” he said. “Three years ago, we identified the earliest known beer, from Iran in 3,500 B.C.”
So what would McGovern call it?
“I don’t know – something like King Midas Golden Elixir. “
Not bad – I can’t wait for the TV commercials.
Alas, Dogfish Head has no plans to bottle Origin Ale. Your best chance of tasting it will be Sept. 23, when the University of Pennsylvania Museum hosts a re-creation of the the funerary banquet of King Midas. For info, call 215-898-4890.
For another taste of the old, try these beers:
- Two Druids Solstice Ale, from Heavyweight Brewing of Ocean Township, N.J. Based on a medieval ale known as gruit, this bitter brew is flavored with a blend of yarrow, bog myrtle and mugwort.
- Grozet, a Scottish beer that also dates to medieval days, made with unmalted wheat, herbs and gooseberries.
- Fraoch Heather Ale, also from Scotland, brewed in a style dating to 325 B.C.
Apologies for the beer movie omission last time around. Of course, the “Caddyshack” of beer films has already been made – it’s “Strange Brew,” starring the MacKenzie brothers.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Lindeman’s Kriek.