Dogfish Head Brewery (out of Milton, Delaware) is one of the more famous craft breweries in the U.S. (Don't know if they export much to other countries--hope so, for their sakes.) And with good reason--they're excellent. My personal favorites include their 60 Minute and 90 Minute IPA's, as well as their Saison du Buff.
But one of the things I like best about them is their willingness to experiment with different beer styles and ingredients. If you take a look at their brewery's offerings over the years, it's well into the dozens, if not three digits. Essentially, pick a beer style and they've probably already produced a version, or are presumably planning to.
Given my profession, it seemed appropriate for me to try and rate beers from their Ancient Ales series. Starting in 1999, Dogfish Head has partnered up with Dr. Patrick McGovern, from the University of Pennsylvania Museum, who specializes in studying ancient beverages. One of Dr. McGovern's methods is to chemically analyze drinking vessels from archaeological sites and determine what was in the beverages. Sometimes the results indicate that the drinks were alcoholic in nature. So, looking at these chemical results, as well as from botanical samples, pollen samples, and written documents, McGovern has been able to roughly figure out recipes for some of these.
The first Ancient Ale put out by Dogfish Head was Midas Touch. This is a beverage somewhere between a wine and a mead, based on information found in a tomb in Turkey believed to be that of the real King Midas. (Clearly, the myths and stories about him, such as his cursed ability to turn things to gold by touching them, are fictitious, but there does seem to have been an actual ruler.) This beer is flavored with honey, white muscat grapes, and saffron.
Chateau Jiahu is based on evidence found in a tomb at the 9000 year old Neolithic site of Jiahu in the Henan province of China. Other highlights of this site include some of the earliest examples of writing, and some of the oldest playable musical instruments, in the form of their distinctive flutes. The beer, which may be the oldest example of alcohol ever, is made with barley, honey, hawthorn fruit, and sake rice.
Moving to Central America, another Ancient Ale, Theobroma, is based on analysis of pottery found at a 3000 year old site in Honduras. It's flavored with honey, cocoa, chilies, and annatto. It's inspired by the chocolate drink that was reserved only for the ruling elite, and the gods.
Ta Henket is based on Egyptian hieroglyphics. It consists of a wheat and bread base, with chamomile, doum palm fruit, and Middle Eastern herb flavoring, using yeast from Cairo.
Birra Etrusca Bronze is based on the chemical analysis of drinking vessels found in 2800 year old Etruscan warrior tombs in Tuscany, Italy, along with botanical evidence from the same. Flavorings include the ubiquitous honey, hazelnut flour, heirloom wheat, myrrh (appropriate for this season), gentian root, raisins, and pomegranate. Additionally, it's also listed as being fermented in bronze.
Kvasir is inspired by evidence found in a drinking vessel in the tomb of a leather-clad woman believed to have been either a priestess or a upper class dancer. The tomb is Danish, and is 3500 years old. Ingredients include wheat, lingonberries, cranberries, myrica gale, yarrow, (of course) honey, and birch syrup.
Other offerings, some of which were discontinued, were their versions of sahti (see July 30, 2012 post), the African, honey and tree root flavored tej, and chicha, a traditional South American brew.
I was able to locate some of these, and my opinions are below. As before, if I find any of the missing ones, or when Dogfish Head inevitably makes more kinds, I'll of course try to find these, try them, and update this post. As I often do, I'll be using the U.S. scholastic system of A (excellent), B (good), C (average), D (poor, but passing) through F (failing, awful), with pluses and minuses as necessary.
1) Midas Touch: C-. Okay, but a little too barley wine-ish (barley wine is a beer style I don't usually like). The honey sweetness helps.
2) Chateau Jiahu: C+. Weird. Almost like a wine, or a barley wine. Taste is hard to pin down, and describe.
3) Theobroma: D. Didn't like. Unpleasant. Bad tastes include metallic, chalky, and plastic-y. Couldn't really detect the chocolate or chili.
4) Birra Etrusca Bronze: B. Nice. Some weird flavors--fruity, almost like a golden ale. Very solid.
5) Kvasir: B-. Pretty good. Finishes nicely--tart. Fruity, in a good way. Hides alcohol well.
As further explanation, except for the Midas Touch, which I did find in 12 ounce bottles, all of these were only sold in 25 ounce "bomber" bottles. And the prices for the bombers were steep--$12 to $13 each. So if you're not reasonably sure you'll like it, maybe split one with a friend. Also, these are all very strong in alcohol content. The weakest is the Etrusca, and even that's 8.5%! (The others are 9-10%.) Looking at my scores, you can see I didn't love any of them, but really only disliked one. Most were at least alright. And I don't regret even the Theobroma--I didn't enjoy it, but I was trying something new, and different. The expression "Variety is the spice of life," is one I try to adhere to, at least with foods and beverages. And at the risk of sounding cliché and cheesy, imbibing any of the Ancient Ales is like reliving the past, embracing liquid history, if you will.