Of King Midas and ancient beer

By DANIEL MCGOWAN  |  March 16, 2011


The next time you're chugging that seemingly endless cup of stale Keystone Light following a losing game of beer pong, Patrick McGovern wants you to think of it as a liquid time capsule.

McGovern is one of "maybe 10" molecular archeologists in the world focusing primarily on ancient booze and chocolates, which makes him a hit with a wide variety of crowds, ranging from the Discovery Channel nerds to NPR loyalists to, of course, college students, who believe time isn't wasted when you're getting wasted.

The Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, McGovern was in town this week to present "Uncorking the Past," an hour-long lecture that basically confirmed something you probably already suspected: Greek mythology was likely created under the influence of substances even the Waterman co-op kids can't get their hands on.

McGovern, who has penned two books about his research, said he and his team first discovered a 2700-year-old beverage recipe when excavating the tomb of King Midas in present-day Turkey. The group recovered an Iron Age drinking set and analyzed the chemical fingerprints left on different vessels to identify the ingredients used in the cocktail.

What they learned was that if King Midas and his buddies went on a pub crawl today, they probably would be looking for beer garnished with a lot of fruit. Flavor overload was all the rage in the Persian Empire. The fingerprints contained compounds for tartaric acid (grape wine), beeswax (honey mead) and beer stone (barley, for beer), all in the same drink.

In other words, the Persians drank jungle juice too!

Furthermore, if you've ever poured out a little liquor for your homeboys and girls, you'll be happy to know it wasn't Ice Cube who came up with this novel idea. McGovern explained that when King Midas died, his supporters threw a party and also shared the booze with their fallen comrade. You know, so he wouldn't haunt them.

McGovern eventually brought his findings to a variety of brewers hoping someone might be able to take the recipe and concoct something even remotely enjoyable to drink. Ultimately, Delaware-based Dogfish Head prevailed, creating a 9% ABV beer appropriately named Midas Touch.

Dogfish Head, which recently announced its products would no longer be available in Rhode Island, sponsored a tasting of Midas Touch and two other McGovern discoveries at the Brown Graduate Center Bar following the lecture.

Although McGovern billed Midas Touch as recreated for a king, it tasted more like something you would offer to an undergrad who "doesn't like the taste of beer." Yet. It was sweeter and fruitier than the beer you're probably used to, but not as sugar-filled as a Smirnoff Ice, which only pussies drink anyway.

The other drinks offered were Chateau Jiahu, which tasted like a combination of sweet boxed wine and flat beer, and Theobroma, a delicious mixture of chilies and cocoa powder that appeared to be the most popular in the room.

The recipe for Chateau Jiahu, according to McGovern, was inspired by a drink found in China 9000 years ago, which explains why the bottle features a seductive looking Asian woman with a tramp stamp on the label. The Theobroma has its origins in Honduras, which is believed to be the birthplace of chocolate-based alcoholic drinks.

These ancient brews can be tough on the modern drinker's palate. Plenty of "bitter beer faces" proved that right away.

But hey, King Midas probably wouldn't have any love for Keystone Light.

Related: Off the beaten tap, A talk with Greg Koch; plus, the perfect beer for Thanksgiving, Various artists | Open Strings: 1920s Middle Eastern Recordings, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Beer, Turkey, Patrick McGovern,  More more >
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