THE BEST BEER I’ve drunk this summer – maybe the best I’ve had this year – is Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA.
It was down the shore, on the beach house front porch, with a cool breeze and mess o’ shrimp. Adrift in a sea of nothing better than foul-tasting industrial chemicals labeled Corona and Coors Light (this was Jersey, after all), I’d have settled for a bucket of rainwater as long as it had hops.
But this corked, 750ml bottle blew me away with its perfect balance of teeth-chattering hops and smooth, caramel malt under a rich, creamy head.
The surprising thing about this brew – at first taste – is that it’s not weird.
Dogfish Head is known for its funky stuff. Beer guru Michael Jackson once described it as “America’s most interesting and adventurous small brewery,” and for good reason. Its best seller is made with raisins; its stout contains chicory. One of its more popular flavors is based on remnants found in bottles at the 2,700-year-old burial site of King Midas. And its Raison d’Extra briefly held a record for World’s Strongest Beer (20.2 percent alcohol).
By comparison, 90 Minute IPA is a classic beer style: an India Pale Ale.
Classic, but hardly boring.
Most beers begin with a boiling of sweet malt liquid, called wort, which lasts about an hour. The hops are usually added in two stages: at the outset, for bitterness; and in the last minutes, for aroma.
IPAs are made the same way, only with the hops jacked up. The style is a remnant of the mid-19th century, when brewers added extra hops to their recipes as a preservative for beers headed to the colonies.
The problem for brewers, of course, is adding too many hops. The brew turns to battery acid, and the beauty of the sweet malt balance is lost.
Dogfish Head chief Sam Calagione toyed with the recipe – literally.
“We thought if we could find a way to continually add hops during the entire 60-minute boil, we could increase the amount of hops,” Calagione said.
His brainstorm: an electric football gameboard. You know, one of those vibrating contraptions that move plastic players down the field.
The machine gently shook a continual dose of hops into the brew for a solid hour.
“If we added all the hops at once,” Calagione said, “it would be undrinkable. It’s just too much.”
Instead, Calagione’s technique was like adding chicken broth to risoto. Somehow, the malt held up to the gradual addition of Cascade, Columbus and Chinook hops. The taste was bitter, but not acidic; the malt balance held mellow and sweet.
“We’re looking into getting a patent on the process,” he said.
Only problem: the splash of the wort shorted out the football game. Calagione eventually replaced the gameboard with an auger and lengthened the boil to 90 minutes – thus the name.
Then the auger conked out.
Now, some unlucky stiff has to stand above the boiling kettle – the steam wafting upward into his face – and toss whole hop buds into wort for 90 minutes straight.
More hops are added during its nine days of fermentation. This time, the flowers are jammed into panty hose and dunked into the brew.
“It looks like a murder scene, with the big legs sticking out of the tank,” Calagione said.
The brew finishes at 9 percent alcohol – that’s a headful, compared to most IPAs, which average 5 or 6 percent. But uncork one of these babies, and it goes down smooth and clean, perfect for drifting into a hot, sultry summer night.
Yeah, it’s steep at $7.50 a bottle. So, share it with a fellow hop head and call it a night.
Dogfish Head last month settled into its new digs, in Milton, Del., about 12 miles north of its birthplace in Lewes.
The 26,000-square-foot facility is a former fish cannery that will be the anchor of a residential development along the Delaware Bay.
Eventually, the brewery will include a restaurant, bar, bocce court and other amenities.
Much of the new equipment is recycled, from the defunct Poor Henry’s brewery in the Northern Liberties section of the city.
Meanwhile, Dogfish Head continues to operate its brewpub in Rehoboth Beach.
It’s worth the visit, even if you’re stuck in the Jersey Shore’s beer wasteland. Just hop on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry and grab a shuttle to Rehoboth.
Leikeim Premium, a lager from a small, family-owned brewery in Bavaria, is showing up on local shelves. Look for it bottled with a Grolsch-like flip-top cap…
Word on the street is Celis White – the Belgian-style ale from Austin, Texas – is expected to make its long-anticipated return next month.
Killed off by its parent, Miller Brewing, the beer is being revived by Michigan Brewing Co. which purchased the Celis equipment. It’ll be distributed initially in Texas and Michigan.
Tomorrow – Eastern Invitational Microbrewers Festival, Stoudt’s Brewery, Adamstown. Info: 717-484-4387.
Oct. 3-5 – Great American Beer Festival, Denver, Colo. Tickets to the nation ‘s biggest beer fest (300 breweries, 1,200 beers) are on sale, starting at $35 for each session. Info: 303-447-0816.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Dogfish Head Raison d’Etre.