Fashioning the world’s strongest beer

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Sooner or later, anyone who brews beer is struck with a spark of devious inspiration, a slightly slurred voice from within that cajoles:

Yo, let’s try to brew the World’s Strongest Beer.

It’s the same voice that urges you to throw a snowball from the 700 level, or pick up that supermodel at the end of the bar. You know, striving for the unreachable.

Sam Calagione, founder and owner of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, heard that voice last winter and started a 10-barrel (150 cases) batch of something he’s calling World Wide Stout. For the last eight months, he has singlemindedly pursued his dream by coaxing the brew into a double-digit alcohol zone, about four times the strength of domestic swill.

He’s hoping it’ll eclipse the current record holder – Boston Beer’s cobalt-bottled 17.5 percent monster, Samuel Adams Triple Bock – in time for New Year’s Eve.

At which point, presumably, Calagione will down a pint or two and float into the next millennium.

That’s a worthy dream – but not one, I presume, Levi Strauss and Co. had in mind when it tapped Sam this summer for its latest advertising campaign. Calagione is one of six small businessmen featured in a series of slick national magazine ads for its so-called “sophisticated casual” Slates line of slacks and shirts.

Now, I like Sam. And I really enjoy his excellent beers. But, if asked to describe him, “sophisticated” is not the first adjective that would disengage itself from Joe Sixpack’s keyboard.

Not unless a pair of overalls and hip boots – standard attire for a guy who spends an inordinate amount of time cleaning the dreck from a mash tun – has quietly replaced Calvin Klein as the fashion statement of the ’90s.

This is a guy who, when he first began distributing his beer to New Jersey, climbed into a dinghy and rowed the first case across the bay from Lewes, Del., to Cape May.

So, when I saw Sam’s portrait – snapped by none other than celebrity photographer Richard Avedon – it took me about two minutes to call him up and yank his chain.

“Oh, God, the calls are already starting to come in,” Sam laughed. “I was hesitant when they asked me to do it, but I figured it might be good for Dogfish Head.”

His five minutes of fame started when someone from Levi’s ad agency spotted his photo in Ale Street News, a regional beer newspaper. The agency thought he’d make a good subject for an ad campaign that would celebrate the “entrepreneurial spirit and sophisticated style” of men.

They offered to fly him to New York for the photo shoot, but he drove up from Delaware instead. “It was a good opportunity to deliver a few cases of beer to some accounts in Manhattan,” he said.

And he brought a bucketful of his Shelter Pale Ale to Avedon. “He’s like 70 years old, but he’s a pretty cool guy,” Calagione said. “He told me his secret is he drinks a Moosehead every night. I’m going to try to wean him off that stuff.”

Avedon had Calagione mimic the photographer’s famous portrait of Marilyn Monroe holding an exploding bottle of champagne. “We went through a few bottles before we got it right,” Sam said.

They shot more photos in San Francisco; now the ads are starting to show up in glossy mags like Esquire and Vanity Fair.

I suspect they chose Sam because he’s a photogenic guy. But if Levi’s was looking for someone who exemplifies that so-called “entrepreneurial spirit,” they couldn’t have found a better candidate than a microbrewer. Most of the ones I know work 16-hour days, trying to make an honest buck by brewing glorious ales and battling for a piece of a market that’s dominated by millionaire brewing scions like Augie Busch and Peter Coors.

Still, I had to laugh when I read the ad agency’s blather that, “At the core of the Slates brand is the essence of charting your true course.”

Right. Chart my course to a sixpack of that World Wide Ale.

Speaking of the world’s strongest beer, Sam Adams says it will not go down without a fight. Boston Beer is brewing a batch of a very potent ale it’s calling Millennium.

No word on the alcohol content, but a brewery spokeswoman promised it’ll be even stronger than its Triple Bock.

Joe Sixpack, written this week with a bottle of Dogfish Head Chicory Stout, appears every other Friday.


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