Midas, the Golden King of Beer

Apr 20 2009 Published by under Natural Sciences

A few weeks ago, Sci and Mr. SiT met up with some friends we don't see often enough. One of these friends has what I personally think is the BEST JOB EVER. He works for a microbrewery. This means that, not only does he get a wicked discount on some amazingly tasty microbrews, he also knows more about microbrews in general than anyone else I've met. This is awesome, because he can then educate Sci! Sci loves a good beer (she takes recommendations), and it's always better if its got a fabulous name/label (I have the same requirement for wine. The more amusing the label, the more likely I am to give it a try). And on this particular weekend, Sci's friends showed her a really interesting label.

When my friend showed me this beer, she swore to me that it was really based on beer that King Midas himself drank. Assuming King Midas to be entirely fictional, and thus that this was a myth, I scoffed at her claim. But this is no ordinary lady, and she sent me the reference the very next day. And it's ALL TRUE. And so Sci has to relate this awesome feat of combined archeology, biochemistry, and paleobotany to you. And then she has to find a way to taste this beer.
McGovern, PE "Ancient Wine" Princeton University Press, 2003.

So I'm sure most of you know the legend of King Midas. But in case you haven't, it is now time for STORY TIME WITH SCICURIOUS!
And then I will talk about the science. But you know you want a story, right????
*cough cough* (turns page). Once upon a time...According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, there was a great kind of Phrygia named Midas.

One day, the peasants of his kingdom brought him a drunk satyr they had found wandering in the woods.

Recognizing a companion of the god Dionysus, Midas was very courteous to his guest, and wined and dined him for many days.

At the end of this fabulous time, the kind returned the Satyr to his home with Dionysus. The god was so grateful to have his satyr back that he offered Midas whatever the king may wish. Midas, apparently not thinking of the effect his powers might have on a glutted gold market, wished for the ability to turn things into gold. And he got it.

Well, Midas was totally thrilled about this, and very excited to plan his future investment portfolio. Until, after an afternoon spent gleefully turning his chairs to gold while consulting with his financial advisor, he sat down to dinner.

Ooops. No matter what he touched, or attempted to eat or drink, it turned to gold the instant it touched his lips. Suddenly, Midas realized that a golden touch was only awesome when you weren't hungry. He had condemned himself to death by starvation. But things were only going to get worse. Enter Midas' lovely young daughter.

Well, shit. Midas was horrified by what he had done (though whether he was most upset about his daughter or about potentially starving to death is unclear). He prayed to Dionysus to undo his dreadful curse. Dionysus told him to bathe in the river Pactolus, which washed away the golden touch, and became a rich source of gold thereafter.

Midas was cured. Realizing the value of soft currency, he moved away to spend the rest of his days utilizing a monetary system that wouldn't come into vogue for another 1200 years. Midas apparently also spent the rest of his days in blatant Dionysus ass-kissing for saving him from very expensive starvation.

Of course, I always thought that this was just a myth. There probably was no Midas, and of course there are no satyrs or gods of wine (because if there were, the world would be SO much more awesome than it is right now). But apparently, it's not all a myth. There WAS a King Midas (the Greek version of the name, probably his name was pronounced Mita), and he ruled the kingdom of Phrygia in what is now modern-day Turkey. Archeologists found his tomb in 1997, and date it back to around 700 BCE. And in that tomb, they found many jars and vessels, made of bronze, and containing the residues of what could have been drinks. They had found the world's oldest drinking set.
Of course, fermentation is one of oldest chemical processes known to mankind. It's estimated right now that humans have been drinking fermented drinks for over 9000 years. So it makes sense that, of the things that people would leave to send King Midas in to the afterlife with due ceremony, alcohol might be among them. Of course, there had been both bacteria and oxygen in the tomb when Midas' tomb was sealed, and those began their work on the post-mortem feast right away. But the tomb was remarkable well sealed (buried beneath a burial mound 45 METERS high), and oxygen soon ran out. The bacteria died out, and what was left of the feast therefore didn't rot. There was plenty of residue left (over 2kg, which is a LOT for any archeological find) when scientists from the University of Pennsylvania discovered the tomb 2700 years later.
The chemists took one look at the bronze vessels, shaped unmistakably to hold liquid, and wanted to know what was in them. What did people DRINK back then? They gathered the samples and used the latest in chemical technology (a lot of high performance liquid chromatography, spectroscopy, and mass spectrometry) to figure out what the leftovers were made of.
They came up with a drink very similar to the "Greek grog" which was known to be made by the ancient Greeks at the time. The beverage was a mixture of grape wine, barley beer, and honey mead. They also found residues of wine, honey, barbequed goat, and olive oil, reconstructing King Midas' funeral feast.
So where did this "golden touch" idea come from? Well, the historians hypothesize that ancient Greeks may have visited the court of King Midas. Midas' kingdom WAS a very rich one (he had large sources of lead on his land), and he probably wowed his guests with huge numbers of bronze drinking vessels. As gold in those days was far more rare than it is now (though bronza was far more common and a symbol of power), it's possible that travelers returned home to Greece with amazing stories of Midas and his tons and tons of "gold".
And this whole thing might have been cool enough, but it got even better. Enter the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. The owner decided to try and recreate Midas' wine, and made a microbrew of malted barley, Italian thyme honey and white Muscat grapes. He seasoned it with saffron (as Midas' kingdom was in Turkey, he would have had access to saffron, and the researchers detected traces of it), and fermented it with mead yeast. He served up the result at a benefit for U Penn's Archeology program. The beer ended up very popular, and is now released once or twice a year for specialty beer lovers.
Sci really wants to try this beer. That weekend, she got to try some tasty beers, but she only got to LOOK at the King Midas. So if anyone wants to send some Midas brew Sci's way, she will lift her glass to you, check it out, and let the world know what she thinks. With a mix of wine, beer, and mead, it can't be boring.

15 responses so far

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Well, if you really like awsome labels then I know one or two. The beer ain't bad, either.

  • barberdale says:

    This post has made my (canned) Miller High Life taste less adequate. Saffron? What the fuck does that even taste like? And why do both of the microbreweries linked have two animals in their name? I guess Dogfish and Duck-Rabbit both have folksy-americana connotations, and that's what sells beer. In the future all microbrews will have no names, just Bruce Sprinsteen's photo.
    Also, I am aware that a dogfish is one animal and not two. It doesn't change the effectiveness of underdog marketing.

  • Scicurious says:

    Actually, barberdale, the Duck-Rabbit is a reference to an example used in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations in his thoughts "on seeing". Apparently the head of Duck Rabbit was a philosopher in a former life, which endears the beer to me even more! Though I suppose to some it might make it more pretentious. Pretentiousness tastes delicious.

  • chezjake says:

    Sci and her friends and drinking pals might appreciate this very well written piece from The New Yorker on "extreme beers," which focuses primarily on the Dogfish Head Brewery.

  • Beth says:

    Dogfish makes some tasty beers- I haven't tried that one in particular but it's probably a tasty bet that it's.... tasty.

  • wybory sondaze demokracja says:

    Sounds interesting. This way we can bring almost all to life - ambrosia of the Olimp's gods, Hobbit's food or even Phoenix itself.
    Unfortunately I don't know beers or wines with funny labels but I will try to find some.
    Bottoms up!

  • Stephanie Z says:

    And the moral of the story is never accept a favor from the god of drunkards. That is very cool. I'll have to see whether it makes it this far west. Unfortunately, their map isn't working for me.

  • MikeS says:

    I recommend Moose Drool beer. On a trip we ran into it and had to try it. We figured it had to be good to overcome such a revolting name.

  • Liz says:

    Having had this beer before, it is quite tasty. Hopefully you find some (and hopefully I can find some more.)

  • Joel says:

    I've had this beer and it's not too bad. Not Dogfish Head's best beer by far (that would be the 90 minute IPA), but it's unique I'll give it that. It's has really strong fruity flavors (mostly the grape), and you can definitely pick up the honey in the aroma.
    You should be able to pick this beer up in most east coast states (it's all over Michigan).
    And barberdale: Miller Lite? Gross. Start drinking real beer. 🙂

  • InkRose says:

    I don't suppose Wychwood would qualify as a microbrewery by anyone's measure, but their labels tend to be quite nice, and the beers themselves are more than adequately drinkable for the most part.
    A proper microbrewery favourite of mine is the Norwegian outfit Nøgne Ø (the name means 'Naked Island'). They make some very, very tasty beers out there, though the labels represent classical Scandinavian minimalism more than quirky/artsy/weird coolness. I've never tried their legendary/infamous Dark Horizon, unfortunately, but I have yet to come across a better Porter than theirs. Their IPA was a bit too heavily hopped for my taste last I had it, but the overall quality is most excellent.
    There are a couple of microbreweries in my native Finland, too (Plevna, Huvila, the recently re-opened Stadin Panimo), and I've tried a few of their offerings, but for the most part they weren't terribly impressive at the time. Can't remember the more decent ones' names now, other than the impressive Siberia imperial stout by Plevna, brewed specially for Pikkulintu ('the little bird', which also happens to be absolutely the best malt whisky bar in Finland!). And we mustn't forget sahti, which according to the late great Michael Jackson is about as close to the original viking mead as we're likely to get nowadays. Finland's most famous sahti is made in Lammi, about 45 minutes' drive from where I grew up.
    Also the Swedish (Dugges, Öllefabrik) and Danish (Mikkeller, Djævlebryg, Haand Bryggeriet) have a few very promising microbreweries going. Might be worth your while looking into some of these.

  • Ketil Tveiten says:

    I second the praise for Nøgne Ø. Their Porter is unsurpassed, and their Brown Ale and Imperial Stout are also top-notch. A bit of an acquired taste, perhaps, but their '#100' is also great.
    A warning, though, for random sampling of their selection: their motto is 'the uncompromising brewery'. If they create a weird taste, that's okay by them. I've tasted Nøgne Ø beer that tasted of cheap artificial-flavoured soda, yet was strong as a Porter. (It was a berry-based lambic.)
    Their Dark Horizon I would describe as an acquired taste, as you would need to have significant experience to dark and strong beer to enjoy it. That said, once acquired, it is really good.

  • Toaster says:

    Arrogant Bastard Ale. Their motto is "you probably won't like it". In fact, they even have a filter landing page with a disclaimer. LINK

  • sinned34 says:

    I'm a big fan of Fraoch Heather Ale, which they claim is a version of beers crafted since 2000 BC. It sure goes good with lamb!
    The Cannery has two great beers: Naramata Nut Brown, and Blackberry Porter, but there's really no historical significance to them.
    Damn, now I'm thinking about beer, and I've still got three hours at work!

  • Who's yer Daddy? says:

    Concerning the drinking habits of ancient Greece, what has been most interesting to me is their habit of mixing wine with water. Apparently, no civilized drinker imbibed a beverage straight; in fact, many outstanding examples of Greek pottery are kraters, vessels designed for mixing wine with water. So is the beverage in question also intended to be diluted before consumption? The modern interpretation, Midas Touch, is 9% ABV, which is powerful for a beer and approachine wine. Any archaeologists want to weigh in on how these drinks were meant to be consumed? How does ancient wine compare?

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