SAM CALAGIONE makes all those brews that “regular” beer drinkers like to make fun of.
His Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware makes beer with honey and chicory and pumpkin and grapes and apricots. These beers come with the kinds of goofy names – Raison d’ Etre and Au Courant, for example – that Schwarzeneggers pounding Coors Light mock as “girly” beers.
Never mind that hairy-chested beer freaks around the world eagerly await each new flavor from Dogfish Head, that magazines from Details to Money have declared it as one of America’s top three or four breweries, that it once made a beer that’s as strong as schnapps. To many drinkers – the ones who never stray from their industrial American lagers – Calagione’s beers aren’t real ‘merican beers.
So, what are the boys on the corner going to say about Liquor de Malt?
Behind that funny French name is a bona fide high-octane malt liquor. In one of Calagione’s typically zany marketing ploys, it’s packaged in a 40-ounce, twist-off bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag.
OE800, move over.
I’ve long given up asking Sam, “Why?” He just jumps in with a manic zeal that goes a long way toward explaining the number of off-the-wall styles (more than a dozen, at last count) produced by his brewery.
“The idea here is always to expand your definition of what beer can be,” Calagione said. “Malt liquor is a style that is maligned, it’s the beat-up stepchild of the brewing industry. It’s always been considered a style that has no merit or quality, it’s essentially promoted by big breweries by the fact that it has more alcohol than other beer.”
Much of the pop in industrial malt liquor comes from cheap corn syrup. The extra sugar converts easily into alcohol.
The problem is, corn syrup really doesn’t give you much in the way of flavor. It’s sweet and one-dimensional, just a bland, buzz-inducing experience.
“It’s just alcohol with no taste,” Calagione said. “We thought we could make it more interesting. We decided to see what happens if you spend more money on your corn.”
Instead of syrup, Liquor de Malt contains actual milled corn – three types, called Azetec Red, Taos Blue and Hickory. As you’d expect, the flavor is fuller. It’s the difference between fresh corn on the cob and a can of boiled Green Giant niblets.
And it contains the appropriate alcohol content: about 7 percent by volume, a bit more than, say, Schlitz Malt Liquor.
It’s sweet but complex, smooth but with a kick. I’d pair it with a takeout Taconelli’s white pizza (extra garlic) on the back porch, listening to Harry Kalas on a hot August night.
Because Dogfish Head doesn’t have a 40-ounce bottling line, workers filled and labeled the bottles by hand. Then, instead of artificially carbonating the beer with CO2, as with most mainstream beers, Liquor de Malt was naturally bottle-conditioned: Unspent yeast awakens inside the bottle and ferments the remaining sugars.
As you’d expect, the better ingredients and time-consuming bottling process push this beer into a decidedly non-40 price range. It retails at $7.50 – a good four bucks per bottle more than, say, Colt 45.
“This beer would make zero sense to make from a cost-benefit analysis,” Calagione said. “But it’s worth it, if only to shine a light on a much-maligned style.”
Dogfish Head is not the first craft brewery to dabble with malt liquor. Over the years, several brewpubs have entered their own versions in the Great American Beer Festival’s malt liquor judging category.
But it is the first to go to all the trouble of putting it into 40-ounce bottles and distributing it around the country.
Indeed, packaging the brew in a familiar 40-ounce bottle and wrapping it, with a wink, in a brown paper bag takes Liquor de Malt to a different level, I think.
It’s meta-malt, a parody lager that pays homage to the original while transcending it in flavor and buzz. It doesn’t mock your favorite 40, but it does ask you: Why don’t you drink something better?
If your only answer is that yours is cheaper, well, at least now you know why.
Two new brews made their way across my tonsils recently:
– Floris Appel Witbier. In red states, they might call beer and apples an unnatural marriage, the sort of union that no civilized society can tolerate. But this brew is from Belgium, a nation where they feed ale to 8-year-olds. And, besides, it can trace its linage back to the 1300s, about 500 years before your favorite fizzy yellow lager was invented.
This version is a wheat beer – cloudy, like Hoegaarden, and every bit as refreshing. It’s as tart as lemonade and – at about 4 percent alcohol – almost as drinkable.
It’s brewed by Huyghe in Flanders, which is better known on this side of the Atlantic for its powerful Belgian headbanger, Delirium Tremens.
So far, it’s available only on draft, which is too bad. This beer would be a welcome addition to any ice chest.
– Weyerbacher Heresy. After all these years, I still haven’t made up my mind about beer aged in bourbon casks.
Part of me says man was meant to drink whiskey from a shot glass, followed by a suitable chaser. The other part of me says, I’m too lazy to wash the damn glasses, let’s do boilermakers.
Heresy is Weyerbacher’s incredibly smooth Old Heathen imperial stout steeped in a used oak bourbon barrel. If you’ve had this within six inches of your nose, you wouldn’t need me to tell you that – the sweet bourbon aroma wafts off the black brew like Sunoco’s finest on a summer afternoon in Marcus Hook.
A couple of glasses in a hot room had me sweating in overdrive; maybe it was the 8 percent alcohol content. But before collapsing, I detected vanilla, chocolate and a bit of fruitiness (figs?).
I’m going to pack a few bottles away till the temperature drops and I dry off. In the meantime, the flavor should mellow.
The results are in from two of the city’s stranger beer-related contests.
At Monk’s Cafe (16th and Spruce streets, Center City), a slate of brews from Dogfish Head lost to lineup of wines, according to a vote by diners at the restaurant’s Venus & Mars dinner. I won’t go into details, except to say that Joe Sixpack voted the straight beer ticket and even managed – in true Philly fashion – to stuff the ballot box, to no avail . . .
At the Royal Stumble, the annual keg showdown at Nodding Head (1516 Sansom St., Center City), a cask of wit (Belgian white) from Iron Hill was declared the winner.
The event is an in-your-face knockdown (this year featuring Japanese-costumed combatants) in which the winner is the first to kick. Iron Hill was aided by a bevy of pitcher-wielding servers who poured even if you didn’t ask.
In typical wrasslin’ fashion, several losing competitors made scurrilous accusations of vote tampering, but they were summarily dismissed as turnbuckle ninnies.
TOMORROW: State College Microbrewers & Importers Exposition (Penn State Conference Center Hotel, State College, Pa.). Brewers Larry Bell (Kalamazoo Brewing) and Paul Arnott (Unibroue) are the featured guests. I’ll be wandering around looking for the best from more than 50 regional craft brewers. Two sessions, at noon and 6 p.m. $32. 814-353-8426.
JULY 30: Summer Beer Dinner, hosted by John Hansell of The Malt Advocate at the Farmhouse (1449 Chestnut St., Emmaus, Pa.). Taps open 7 p.m. $75. 610-967-6225. *
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Victory Golden Monkey.