Delaware's Dogfish Head landed at No. 2 on the Hophead Beer of the Year list for 2009, thanks in large part to its creative approach. But the brewery isn't just forward-thinking with its innovative beverages--it also has a healthy respect for the past, and goes so far as to resurrect historic beer styles in its line of Ancient Ales.
The lengths to which Dogfish founder Sam Calagione and his collaborator, Penn archaeologist Patrick McGovern, go show true dedication to brewing. It's not as simple as digging up an old recipe and following it. Rather, it requires chemical analysis of ancient drinking vessels and some truly old-fashioned techniques. In fact, for last year's Peruvian-inspired Chicha, the two spent hours chewing and spitting out purple corn kernels, allowing their saliva to break down the corn into fermentable sugars.
Midas Touch, first brewed in 1999, is the pair's initial entry in the series. Created from the original ingredients found in 2,700-year-old drinking vessels found in a Turkish tomb believed to have been that of King Midas, it's brewed with honey, muscat grapes and honey. No spit, thank goodness. Also, notably, no hops.
I picked up a four-pack for about $12 at Goody Goody this week to find out how this primitive beer compares to its modern descendants.
Immediately on pouring, it was obvious that it would be very different. It had a strange yellow cast to it, likely from the saffron. And while the coppery color didn't look so unusual in the glass, the stream from bottle to glass was a shocking sight. It was just so oddly yellow.
The nose was very sweet and earthy, with white grapes and honey dominating. As for the taste, it was ... unique. It's very sweet and malty, with honey and grapes overriding the saffron's soft earthy, dry finish. It's full-bodied and effervescent, almost like a sparkling Chardonnay. In fact, with its sweetness, pronounced grape flavor and 9 percent ABV, I bet you could serve it as sparkling wine at a toast and fool many of your guests. Some would probably like it a lot more than, say, Andre.
As the recipe dates to a time before the domestication of hops, saffron is the only bittering agent. In this Dogfish YouTube clip, Calagione says "It's a great liquid time capsule. It reminds people that long before there was the Reinheitsgebot and a bunch of crazy Bavarians telling people what they should be drinking, people were making beer with whatever ingredients were in their neck of the woods."
Ultimately, I think the saffron is too subtle to match the sweet maltiness of the barley, grapes and honey, and it leaves a sickly aftertaste that worsens as the beer warms up. Ironically, the meticulous historical accuracy is both the reason for the beer's existence and the reason I probably won't buy it again.
Nonetheless, I remain a huge fan of Dogfish and will check out other Ancient Ales I encounter in the future, despite the price tag.