Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Dogfish Days of Winter

Forty-five inches of snow couldn’t keep us from traveling to Baltimore over President’s Day weekend - not when the objectives were to visit our dear (and soon to be married) friends AJ and Amber, and to journey to the Mecca of American Craft Brewing in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

Most home brewers and beer geeks already know about Dogfish Head and their lineup of super-unique and super-sized beers (speaking of super-sized, eight of the 16 beers we sampled weighed in at over 10% ABV, with two tipping the scales at a whopping 18%), but if you (a) have been living under a rock, (b) want a glimpse inside the mind of Dogfish’s founder and owner, Sam Calagione, or (c) need even more reasons to loathe all that Anheuser-Busch InBev stands for, then I suggest you check out this excellent little film called Beer Wars (available from Netflix).

The Tour
Anyway, even after daydreaming about this visit for weeks, I was not the least bit disappointed by the actual experience. AJ made a reservation for us to tour the brewery in Milton, Delaware, followed by dinner at the brewpub in Rehoboth Beach where Dogfish was born in 1995. John (our Off-Centered Tour Guide) was a home-brewer himself, and I was quite jealous as he described his recently built, 1,500 square foot, backyard brew house. He said he needed space for the sixty or so brew pals he invites to his annual chili cook-off, and I can’t blame him for wanting to relocate that many chili-eating, beer-lovers from his living room to the great (ventilated) outdoors...

The tour itself offered the typical sights and sounds – a sniff of hop pellets, a stroll past fermenting tanks, an overview of the beer making process – as well as a few fun facts about Dogfish. For example, I was delighted to learn that Dogfish Head was founded on $30,000 and a dream. (Don’t worry, Danger Kitten, I won’t sign any leases without your input...) I was also delighted to learn, although not surprised, that Dogfish brews contain almost 4x as much malted barley as the commercial giants, i.e. Coors, Miller and Bud, and nearly 2x as much as other craft brews.

After the tour, we retired to the tasting room where Marisa (a.k.a the Temptress of Taps, the Seductress of Samples) served up a few of the brewery’s finest (which you can read about on the website): Midas Touch; Red & White; Black & Blue; Paulo Santo; and 60 Minute IPA. Amber loved the Black & Blue (a belgian-style Golden Ale fermented with blackberries and blueberries) so much that she bought a 750ml bottle to take home. We bought a bottle of the Red & White (a belgian-style Wit brewed with coriander and orange peel and fermented with Pinot Noir juice) for Danger Kitten’s dad, Carlo, who is a wine-guy turned appreciator of good beer.

Before hitting the road, I had the chance to chat with Mark, whose business card (which happens to be made of wood) reads Event Czar / Donation Dude. We talked about local farms, his journey to employment at Dogfish, a great little package store in PA (though the name escapes me), and his most excellent beard (which put mine to shame). Mark also made mention of three excellent events the brewery is affiliated with: the late September Dogfish Dash 5K; the Off-Centered Film Fest; and the Dogfish Head Intergalactic Bocce Tournament – which appears to be even more awesome than it’s name, if that’s possible...

The Brewpub
Once we finished off our samples and settled our debts in the gift shop, it was off to Rehoboth Beach for dinner at Dogfish’s brewpub. Thanks to Michael Pollan (author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food) and the film Food, Inc., Danger Kitten and I are pretty careful about the meat we put in our bodies, i.e. we’ll pass on the antibiotics and growth hormones found in most industrial beef and poultry. We also happen to LOVE hamburgers. Therefore, we were thrilled to learn that the beef served at the brewpub is raised on a steady (and chemical free) diet of grass and spent brewery grains! Lucky cows... Danger Kitten and AJ opted for the Indulgence Burgers (with cheddar, bacon and onion rings on top), while I went with the classic swiss and shroom. Amber’s feta pizza with crab and spinach was damned good, too!

But who am I kidding? We would have been happy eating bread and butter that night, so long as the beer flowed. And flow it did! Our first flight consisted of five offerings: Punkin Cask Ale; Life & Limb (a collaboration between Sierra Nevada and Dogfish); Black & Blue (again); Midas Touch (again); and Burton Baton. And, following that: Chicory Stout; Indian Brown Ale; Shelter Pale Ale; Raison D’Etre; Black Thai; Fort; and World Wide Stout. Black Thai was a new brew that epitomizes what Dogfish Head is all about. An Imperial Stout brewed with edamame (soy beans) and Thai Basil and fermented with lager yeast and 250 pounds of pureed blackberries, Black Thai was the brainchild of Butch in Dogfish’s Maintenance Department. It was totally random and quite tasty.

I fell in love with the Burton Baton, a blend of 90 Minute IPA and an oak-aged English strong ale. But the show-stopper was the World Wide Stout. This unbelievably rich and smooth (and strong – 18% ABV) stout was described by John (our Off-Centered Tour Guide) as, What Guinness dreamed of becoming as a child. And I can look you in the eye and tell you honestly that at $30 a four-pack, this beer is worth every penny. It begs to be sipped from a snifter by the fireplace on a cold winter’s eve...

We were sad to leave Rehoboth Beach, which looked like a great place to spend a weekend...in the summer, but it was getting late and we had a two-hour drive ahead of us (don't worry, Amber was our DD). Fortunately, our beer adventure wasn’t quite over, since I’d packed three barleywine ales that I’d been saving for a special occasion.

The (next day) Tasting
My stalwart readers will recall that Eric, Scott and I brewed a batch of Wallace Fogbottom’s Strong Ale in August. Since I happened to have a few bottles left, I decided to square it off against a few big beers... Comments from myself, Danger Kitten, AJ and Amber are commingled below.

Wallace Fogbottom’s Strong Ale (8.4% ABV)
Eric’s Kitchen
West Haven, CT

Brew Date: August 29, 2009
Bottling Date: November 27, 2009
Tasting Date: February 14, 2010

Appearance: A figgy brown, deep amber color; darkest of the three; hazy/cloudy with a nice head.

Aroma: Sweet motor oil (thanks, honey); slightly yeasty; sweet and simple; deep bitter with a tangy finish.

Taste: Super-sweet and sticky; boozy, with no hop bitterness; a lingering caramel aftertaste.

Overall Impression: Balanced; light, sweet and fruity; easy aftertaste; very smooth and sweet; not as big as a barleywine is apt to be, but bigger isn't always better - isn't that what they say?

Olde School Barleywine (15.0% ABV)
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
Milford, DE

Appearance: Almost garnet in color; lightest of the three; a deep but clear amber; bubbly.

Aroma: A spicy/alcoholy nose; more pungent than the others; fruity and complex with no noticeable hops; fresh; bitter and hoppy.

Taste: Almost cloyingly sweet; candy-like; flowery; bitter and hoppy with a lingering aftertaste.

Overall Impression: A soft, sweet aftertaste; satisfying; lets you know you’re drinking a stronger beer; aftertaste is bold, but not overpowering; packs a punch, but in a non-violent, peace-loving sort of way...

Monster Ale Barleywine (10.0% ABV)
New York, NY

Appearance: A darker amber; clear but not clean(?); ruby colored; sharp(?) amber. <-- Poetic license?

Aroma: Bitter smell; hoppy; piny but not over-strong.

Taste: Cloying; fizzy with a bitter aftertaste; a sharp,malty bitterness; full-bodied with a quickly dissipating aftertaste.

Overall Impression: Deep aftertaste; a bitter and fairly dull beer that leaves you yearning for something more (ouch!); a tad more bitter than you'd expect from a barleywine; least favored of the three, but one I'd certainly order in a pub.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Great bread. Great Lakes. Great bouillon. So-so beer...

Despite the single digit readout on the thermometer, this past Saturday was a 10. (Notwithstanding the beer, but more on that later.) The wife and I ventured down to Norwalk to visit the So No Baking Company & Cafe - a place Danger Kitten has been itching to see. The proprietor is a graduate of the CIA, which is an institution the wife has been thinking, reading and dreaming about lately. Note: this CIA trains chefs and bakers, not snoops...

The bakery is located a block from Long Island Sound on the outskirts of trendy Southern Norwalk - an area that appears to have enjoyed a reincarnation of sorts in the past twenty years - across from a shipyard. We enjoyed lunch and pastries while watching a baker make chocolate croissant. If you ever need to kill an hour in Norwalk, Connecticut, look up the bakery.

After lunch, we made the half mile trek to the aquarium. We'd decided to make a day of it in Norwalk, as it seemed silly to drive an hour just for lunch, and were excited to discover that the aquarium's IMAX was showing Mysteries of the Great Lakes. As someone who grew up on (and in) Lake Michigan, I was pretty thrilled. The film provided an excellent, albeit quick, glimpse of the beauty, history, and threats facing the Lakes. The tragic tale of the mighty and once abundant lake sturgeon brought tears to Danger Kitten's eyes. I mean a lot of tears...

Fortunately, the emotional surge caused by the sturgeon wore off pretty quickly, as our next task was to load up on seafood and fish heads for the evening meal - Court Bouillon. Lucky for us, Norwalk has an excellent little fish market called Paganos. The wonderful fishmonger sold us mussels, bay scallops, monkfish and cod, and gave in a bag of Red Snapper carcasses.

A pot of happy Snappers.

As an aside, check out this picture of a monkfish. The fishmonger explained that monkfish is the "poor man's lobster," and at $6.95/lb, who were we to argue? It earned this name mainly because the only edible part of the fish is the tail, which yields firm, versatile, and mild meat. Because the fish is so damned ugly and yields so little meat, fishermen used to simply take the monkfish tail home for use in their own kitchens. Buy some if you get the chance, but try not to think about the picture you just saw...

The Court Bouillon was rich, satisfying (particularly on a frigid January evening), and perfect with the crusty ciabatta we had in the freezer.

And so, after a full day and a full stomach, it was time to taste a beer. (You knew I'd get around to beer eventually.) I'd been looking forward to a strong ale to warm my innards and titillate my senses. Unfortunately, the beer I chose was up to the first task, but not the second, which disappointed given how much I'd enjoyed the brewery's Autumn Ale during our Oktoberfest tasting...

Weyerbacher's Abbey-style Quadruple Ale (11.8% ABV)
Weyerbacher Brewery
Easton, PA

Appearance: Deep copper. Orangey reddish. Very little head retention, although the bubbles rose until the pint was finished.

Aroma: Powerful. Lots of malty sweetness punctuated by yeast. No hops to speak of.

Taste: An explosion of malt and alcohol. Spicy with very little bitterness. A distinctly Belgian sweetness (not surprisingly). Full-bodied but a bit flat. Weak body with a fleeting mouthfeel that was muscled out of the way quickly by booziness.

Overall Impression: Not the most balanced of beers. Dominated by a rich and deep malty sweetness. Too much “Big Beer” and not enough subtleness or complexity. A case study in less would be more...