A Dogfish Head stout that’s out of this world

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TECHNICALLY speaking, Dogfish Head World Wide Stout is not a Christmas beer. Not unless you’re talking about Christmas 2012.
Instead, it is the Delaware brewery’s latest stab at the world’s strongest beer. This year’s version hit 23.04 percent, about 5 points more than last year’s and just a notch under the record of 24 percent (held by Sam Adams Utopias MMII).

“We did everything we could to get to 24, but we fell just short,” brewery President Sam Calagione told me this week as he tooled up the Jersey Turnpike to unveil the beer in Manhattan. “Still, it’s about a pale ale stronger than last year’s,” which hit 18 percent.

With that much alcohol, it’ll take years for this beer to mature and smooth out the rough edges. You could easily hold onto it till your first-grade kid is old enough to share a bottle at his college graduation. And, at prices ranging from $135 to $150 a case, you won’t be guzzling down a sixpack while watching the Birds Monday night.

But ’tis the season. This stout can be consumed now.

Still aren’t sure? Here’s a World Wide Stout FAQ.

What’s it taste like?

Victory Storm King Stout plus Sandeman Port ’98 minus a box of Raisinettes times the square root of Old City Balzac Blend java over a 10-year-old Aberlour Scotch whisky.

All right, now in English.

The office tasters described it as: strong . . . sherry-like . . . too sweet . . . delicious . . . perfect after the day I just had . . . like a very angry Guinness.

Is it worth $135 a case?

That’s up to you. At that price, it ain’t your father’s Yuengling. But it also ain’t Utopias, which was up on eBay this week for $300 for a single 24-ounce bottle. It’s more like your rich uncle’s case of merlot. The price works out to $5.62 a bottle – 12 cents more than the price of a cup of crappy beer at the Vet. Yes, it’s expensive, but – with this kind of punch – the beer was made to be split with friends. I suggest sampling a single bottle (available locally at the Foodery, 10th and Pine streets) before investing in 24.

Why is this stuff so expensive?

Think ingredients. It started out with about 6-7 times the malt bill of your standard lager. Then it had to be tended for four months in a cooling tank.

How was the beer made so strong?

Alcohol is produced when yeast feasts on sugar. In this case, a lot of sugar, in the form of dark barley malts, malt extract, brown sugar and other sweet stuff that Dogfish Head won’t reveal.

What about the yeast?

That’s the tricky part. When alcohol content reaches double digits, it kills yeast, though various strains can survive in higher levels. In past years, the brewery added yeast in seven increasingly stronger doses, slowly nudging the alcohol content upward. This year, the brewery scaled back to just three yeast strains: Belgian (also used in Dogfish Head’s Immort Ale and Raison d’Etre), champagne (used often in high-alcohol beers), and “Yeast Strain X,” which Calagione says “we don’t talk about. ”

Any other tricks?

Other breweries have been known to achieve high buzz levels by fortifying their beer with straight distilled alcohol (a la malternatives, like Smirnoff Ice). Boston Beer says that while its Utopias is aged in used whiskey kegs, its alcohol is achieved solely from fermentation. Interestingly, Dogfish Head runs a distillery at its Rehoboth Beach, Del., brewpub. But Calagione insists the alcohol is purely the product of fermentation. “I’d be insane to run it through the distillery and then fall short of the world record,” he says.

What about hops?

This beer is all about the malt, so don’t go sniffing for fresh flowers in the aroma. Nonetheless, a strong hops presence was needed to balance the sweetness. Healthy doses of Northern Brewer and Warrior hops produced a beer with around 75 international bittering units, which is equal to a very hoppy India Pale Ale.

Where’s the head?

A beer this thick won’t hold a huge head, but there are some bubbles, the product of forced carbonation.

Forced carbonation?

Many craft brews – including most of those made by Dogfish Head – get their carbonation naturally, through the addition of sugar or malt extract to the bottle. Unlike factory-made beer, which is filtered, these brews contain a bit of unspent yeast, which continues to ferment for weeks or months inside the bottle. That final fermentation, known as bottle-conditioning, produces tiny CO2 bubbles. But the high alcohol in World Wide Stout is toxic to yeast, so bottle-conditioning is out of the question. The CO2 is injected, or forced, just before bottling.

What’s the deal with those labels?

Dogfish Head originally described the stout as “a very dark beer brewed with a ridiculous amount of barley, vim & vigor. ” But the feds didn’t like that word, “vigor,” believing it implies extra strength (well, duh!). Now those final words are crossed out with a Sharpie.

Why is it so hard to find?

The brewery made 105 barrels, which yielded only 1,400 cases. Few beer distributors are willing to stock such an expensive beer, fearing they’ll have to eat unsold cases. But most quality distributors will special-order the beer. Devoted fans have been known to make the trek north from as far away as Florida for this Delaware Destroyer.

Is it available on tap?

Yes, but good luck finding it. Only 20 mini-kegs were filled and sent to several outposts in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. Locally, Monk’s Cafe (16th and Spruce streets, Center City) will probably pour it, but I’m guessing co-owners Tom Peters and Fergus Carey will sit on this one awhile.

What about the beer gut?

At 666 calories per bottle, World Wide Stout is “the anti-Christ of light beers,” jokes Calagione. But, like all beer, it contains no fat. “Keep one of these beers in your car,” he says. “If you get lost or stuck, you could survive on it for a week.”

Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Gouden Carolus Noel.

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