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Recreating King Midas' Golden Elixir: in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania, an American brewer makes a beer for the ages. (Beer Notes).

The legendary King Midas turns out not to be a legend, after all. He may not have had a golden touch, but this once powerful ruler of the Phrygians, in the land we now know as Turkey, was a wealthy king. Evidence of this comes from a University of Pennsylvania archeology find. In 1957, archeologist Rodney Young uncovered the 230-foot-high burial mound of King Midas at Gordion in central Turkey. The date of Midas' death was set as 7l8 BC.

A wealth of pots and furniture was recovered from the dig, as well as a tremendous amount of dried residue from food containers and drinking vessels. But in 1957 the science for chemically analyzing this residue was relatively crude. The food and drink remains were bagged and sent to Philadelphia.

Enter Dr. Patrick McGovern, a molecular archeologist at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. McGovern is a world expert at discovering the drinks and foods of ancient civilizations, by analyzing, sometimes molecule by molecule, the residue in pots and wooden containers. Little did McGovern know that just several floors above his basement office and lab were paper bags full of the food and drink remains from the Midas dig. They had been sitting there for 40 years in the office of Ellen Kohler, an archivist at the museum and a participant in the original 1957 dig.

'I got involved in this project in 1997 with a phone call from the person who did the study of the furniture from the tomb," explained McGovern. Elizabeth Simpson, a professor at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York City, is considered the world's leading authority on the furniture found at Midas' tomb. A former doctoral classmate of McGovern's at UPenn, Simpson believed that everything found at the tomb was part of the king's funeral services. The food and drink remains, she believed, would have been from the funeral feast. "She asked me if I was interested in analyzing the material and I jumped right on it," said McGovern. "All I had to do was walk up the stairs, check the samples out and start doing the analysis."

McGovern believed that the drink at the feast most certainly would have been alcoholic. 'I did a whole series of analysis and gradually figured out the various constituents of the drink and entree," said McGovern. What he discovered was that the drink, probably about 10 percent alcohol-by-volume, was a mixture of wine, beer and honey mead. "One of the things we didn't actually identify was the spice or the bittering agent," said McGovern. "We assume there must have been something like that because we found other spices in the food. And if you have a very sweet mixture of wine, beer and mead, you'd think they must have used some sort of spice." Saffron became McGovern's best guess at a spice. "It's native to Turkey," said McGovern, "you have a lot of wild crocuses growing there and it has that golden look to it, as well as a very special flavor and aroma."

McGovern had successfully analyzed King Midas' funeral drink, but ha wasn't a brewer. He didn't try to recreate the brew. That task fell to others. "Last March there was a dinner at the university," said McGovern, "for the beer writer Michael Jackson. After the dinner I mentioned what we had been doing with the Midas drink and invited anyone who was interested in learning more about it to come to my lab the next morning to see what we'd discovered. I thought that maybe someone would have an idea what the process would be to recreate this beverage."

Present that morning were Tess and Mark Szamatulski, Connecticut homebrewers, homebrew shop owners and authors of Clone Brews and Beer Captured. The Szamatulskis experimented with a Midas brew, combining barley malt, wild thyme honey from Greece and partially fermented Muscat grape juice. They fermented this mixture in four vessels with wine yeast using a different bittering spice in three of the fermenters - Turkish figs, anise and saffron - leaving the last batch unbittered. The final drink was eight percent alcohol-by-volume. The Szamatulskis shared their results and recipe with McGovern, and they have since won awards with their creation at homebrew competitions.

At the Jackson dinner McGovern also spoke to Sam Caligione, owner/brewer of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware, about brewing a microbrewery-sized batch of the King Midas brew. Caligione made a 93-gallon experimental batch using malted barley, Italian thyme honey and white Muscat grapes, seasoning the brew with Indian saffron and fermenting it with mead yeast. The resulting seven-and-a-half percent alcohol-by-volume brew was served at a $150-per-person benefit for UPenn's Molecular Archaeology Program in early 2001 and again this year. In June 2001, Dogfish Head released a limited number of bottles of Midas Touch Golden Elixir throughout the brewery's distribution network. The final beer, boosted to an impressive nine percent alcohol-by-volume, is packaged in 750-ml corked champagne bottles. It was an immediate success with lovers of special beers and Caligione has decided to continue to release the Midas beer once or twice a year. Buyers of Midas Touch Golden Elixir are not required to save the beer for their funeral feasts.

Gregg Glaser is a beer writer and educator who makes his home in Wilton, CT. His writings are a regular feature in Modern Brewery Age.
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Author:Glaser, Gregg
Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 22, 2002
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