Excerpt from “A Better Brew” by Burkhard Bilger
New Yorker, November 24th, 2008
Late one morning, Calagione and I drove to Philadelphia to see an archeological chemist he knows named Patrick McGovern. Calagione looked washed out and a little crotchety—a rare thing—after one too many glasses of grappa the night before. When I mentioned Oliver’s misgivings to him, he smirked, as if hearing them for the hundredth time. “Garrett and I are good friends, but we definitely disagree on this,” he said. “It’s a purist versus populist position. If all of our palates are subjective, who am I and who is Garrett to decide whether there’s too much hops in a beer, or whether you should be putting lemongrass or rampe leaves in it? As long as it finds an audience, it’s valid.”
Extreme beer is a return to normality, too, Calagione believes. It’s just the normality of a thousand years ago, or several thousand, rather than a hundred. If the Reinheitsgebot is still the touchstone for most American brewers, Calagione’s is a bronze bowl from King Midas’ tomb.
The historical Midas was a Phrygian ruler in what is now central Turkey. When he or one of his close relatives was buried, around 730 B.C., the tomb was filled with more than a hundred and fifty drinking vessels—parting toasts to the dead king. By the time they were excavated, in 1957, the liquid inside them had evaporated. But Patrick McGovern, forty years later, was able to analyze some residue from a bowl and identify its chemical content. By matching the compounds to those found in the foods and spices of ancient Turkey, McGovern gradually pieced together the liquid’s main ingredients: honey, barley, and grapes, and a yellow substance that was probably saffron. It was a beer, but like none we’ve ever tasted.
“Beer is a much older concept than the Reinheitsgebot,” McGovern told us later, at the University of Pennsylvania. He was sitting at a chipped metal desk in his basement office at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, surrounded by sagging bookshelves and dusty lab equipment: a furnace, a microscale, a spectrometer, a liquid chromatograph. Here and there, chunks of pottery and other artifacts were wrapped in plastic or aluminum foil and stuffed in file drawers or ratty cardboard cases. “You’re taking nine thousand years of brewing history and just looking at the last five hundred years of it,” he said.
McGovern is a wizardly figure with a long white beard and large glasses that seem to draw his eyes together at the inner corners. He has a quiet but penetrating voice, a sharp wit, and a near total lack of pretension. (When brewing at Dogfish, he has been known to pour himself a chicory stout for breakfast.) He and Calagione first met eight years ago, at a dinner in honor of Michael Jackson, the great British beer writer. McGovern had recently published his findings on King Midas and was hoping to convince someone to make a modern-day replica of the beverage. (Anchor Brewing had done something similar a few years earlier, when it made a beer based on an ancient Sumerian hymn to the beer goddess, Ninkasi.) As it turned out, several brewers took up the challenge and sent beers to his house over the next few months. “Some were pretty good,” he says. “But Dogfish Head’s was the best.”
Midas Touch, as it was later called, has a brilliant rose-gold color—every batch contains about a thousand dollars’ worth of saffron—and a thick, honeyed, spicy flavor: a cross between beer, mead, and wine. It has become Dogfish’s most decorated drink, winning a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, another gold at the International Mead Festival, and a silver at the World Beer Cup. “I look at beers like these as an opportunity to drink history,” Calagione said. “They’re liquid time capsules.”
Earlier that summer, he and McGovern had brewed their most recent project: Theobroma, or “food of the gods.” It was based on Mayan and Aztec ceremonial drinks, and on residues of the earliest known fermented cacao beverage, found in Honduran pots from between 1400 and 1100 B.C. It contained cocoa nibs, ancho chilies, honey, barley, and annatto seeds. “I kept complaining that it needs more chocolate,” McGovern said. “I wanted to make it more reddish, because it was equated with blood and human sacrifice.” Calagione laughed, saying, “And I told him, ‘O.K., I’ll get back to you on that.’ ”
Beer is less ancient than wine, McGovern went on to say, because it requires more technology: agriculture to grow the grain, fire and kettles to cook it. But, once invented, it quickly spread. “It wasn’t just in one part of the world,” he said. “It was all over.” If wine was rare and therefore aristocratic—it could be made only once a year, when fruit was ripe—beer trickled down to the working class. All you needed was a little malted grain and something bitter to balance its sweetness. Before barley became the grain of choice, brewers used millet and rice. Even after hops were domesticated, around 700 A.D., they threw in wormwood, henbane, cowslip, ivy, mugwort, bog myrtle, elderberry, oak leaf, laurel leaf, autumn crocus, or wild rosemary. Some plants were poisonous, most were not, and they gave the beer an endless variety of flavors.
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