The rise of extreme beer.
by Burkhard Bilger November 24, 2008
Elephants, like many of us, enjoy a good malted beverage when they can get it. At least twice in the past ten years, herds in India have stumbled upon barrels of rice beer, drained them with their trunks, and gone on drunken rampages. (The first time, they trampled four villagers; the second time they uprooted a pylon and electrocuted themselves.) Howler monkeys, too, have a taste for things fermented. In Panama, they’ve been seen consuming overripe palm fruit at the rate of ten stiff drinks in twenty minutes. Even flies have a nose for alcohol. They home in on its scent to lay their eggs in ripening fruit, insuring their larvae a pleasant buzz. Fruit-fly brains, much like ours, are wired for inebriation.
The seductions of drink are wound deep within us. Which may explain why, two years ago, when John Gasparine was walking through a forest in southern Paraguay, his thoughts turned gradually to beer. Gasparine is a businessman from Baltimore. He owns a flooring company that uses sustainably harvested wood and he sometimes goes to South America to talk to suppliers. On the trip in question, he had noticed that the local wood-carvers often used a variety called palo santo, or holy wood. It was so heavy that it sank in water, so hard and oily that it was sometimes made into ball bearings or self-lubricating bushings. It smelled as sweet as sandalwood and was said to impart its fragrance to food and drink. The South Americans used it for salad bowls, serving utensils, maté goblets, and, in at least one case, wine barrels.
Gasparine wasn’t much of a wine drinker, but he had become something of a beer geek. (His thick eyebrows, rectangular glasses, and rapid-fire patter seem ideally suited to the parsing of obscure beverages.) A few years earlier, he’d discovered a bar in downtown Baltimore called Good Love that had several unusual beers on tap. The best, he thought, were from a place called Dogfish Head, in southern Delaware. The brewery’s motto was “Off-Centered Ales for Off-Centered People.” It made everything from elegant Belgian-style ales to experimental beers brewed with fresh oysters or arctic cloudberries. Gasparine decided to send a note to the owner, Sam Calagione. Dogfish was already aging some of its beer in oak barrels. Why not try something more aromatic, like palo santo?
Calagione was used to odd suggestions from customers. On Monday mornings, his brewery’s answering machine is sometimes full of rambling meditations from fans, in the grips of beery enlightenment at their local bar. But Gasparine’s idea was different. It spoke to Calagione’s own contradictory ambitions for Dogfish: to make beers so potent and unique that they couldn’t be judged by ordinary standards, and to win for them the prestige and premium prices usually reserved for fine wine. And so, a year later, Calagione sent Gasparine back to Paraguay with an order for forty-four hundred board feet of palo santo. “I told him to get a shitload,” he remembers. “We were going to build the biggest wooden barrel since the days of Prohibition.”
Gasparine, by then, had begun to have second thoughts. No lumbermill he knew had ever cut so much palo santo, and he wasn’t sure that any could. Bulnesia sarmientoi is a weedy, willowy tree, sometimes called ironwood. It’s difficult to get large boards out of it, and even small ones can dull a saw blade. Wood experts rate a species’ hardness on the Janka scale—a measure of how many pounds of force it takes to drive a half-inch steel ball halfway into a board. Yellow pine rates around seven hundred, oak twice as high. Palo santo hovers near forty-five hundred—three times as high as rock maple. It’s one of the two or three hardest woods in the world.
Gasparine eventually found some Paraguayans willing to fill the order. On one trip, they took him to the forest where the palo santo grew, a twelve-hour bus ride from Asunción followed by a half day’s drive into the wilderness. Three rough-looking millworkers had agreed to accompany him, led by a bullet-headed giant named Carlos. At one point, a herd of wild boars crossed the road, but Carlos didn’t slow down. He plowed straight over a boar and kept on going.
When they finally arrived, one of the millworkers pulled out a large cooking knife. “He said he was going to prove to me that these were palo-santo trees,” Gasparine remembers. “ ‘We’ll cut away the bark and you can smell it!’ Then he starts hacking away for five or ten minutes. Nothing. Can’t get through the sapwood. So the monster Carlos goes at it. The blade looks like a butter knife in his hand. Nothing.” After a while, Carlos turned to one of his sidekicks and sent him back to the truck. When he returned, he was holding a .38-calibre pistol. “Now I’m a little more than freaked out,” Gasparine says. Carlos took the pistol, swivelled it toward the tree, and fired a single shot from five feet away. The bullet struck with a dull thud, then fell harmlessly to the ground.
The barrel that Dogfish built is now housed at its main brewery, in Milton, Delaware. It’s fifteen feet high and ten feet in diameter, and holds nine thousand gallons. When Calagione took me to see it in August, a pallet of leftover palo santo was stacked nearby. The staves, streaked with a greenish-brown grain, felt disproportionately heavy, as if subject to a stronger gravity—one part wood, one part white dwarf star. The barrel was built by a father-and-son firm in Buffalo, Calagione said, and cost about a hundred and forty thousand dollars—three times the price of the oak barrel beside it. “If Dogfish were a publicly traded company, I’d have been fired for building this,” he said.
Calagione is thirty-nine. That day, as on most days, he was wearing flip-flops, cargo pants, and a threadbare T-shirt, and looked about as concerned with liquidity as the customers bellied up at the brewery’s bar, drinking free samples. When tour groups visit Dogfish, they’re greeted by a quote on the wall from Emerson’s essay on self-reliance: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” it begins. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Calagione doesn’t seem, at first, to fit this cantankerous creed. His nonconformity is of an agreeable sort: brewing beer, keeping his own hours, living by the shore with his high-school sweetheart and their two children. For a while after college, he did some modelling, and he still looks as if he belonged in, well, a Budweiser commercial. He has a surfer’s loose, long-muscled frame and perpetual tan. His chiselled features are set in a squarish head and topped by a thick black ruff. When he talks, his lips twist slightly to the side and his voice comes out low and woolly, like a crooner’s at a speakeasy. “Just get a whiff of that wood,” he said.
I leaned forward and put my nose to the grain. The barrel was more than a year old, but the wood smelled freshly milled. A sharp, spicy, resinous scent came off it, like incense and mulled wine. To stand up to its aroma, Calagione said, he had filled the barrel with a strong brown beer. It was made with three kinds of hops, five kinds of wheat and barley, a dose of unrefined cane sugar, and a sturdy Scottish ale yeast. It had a creamy head when poured, like a Guinness stout, and contained about twelve per cent alcohol—two and a half times as much as a Budweiser. Calagione called it Palo Santo Marron. It was an extreme beer, he said, but to most people it wouldn’t have tasted like beer at all. There were hints of tobacco and molasses in it, black cherries and dark chocolate, all interlaced with the wood’s spicy resin. It tasted like some ancient elixir that the Inca might have made.
America used to be full of odd beers. In 1873, the country had some four thousand breweries, working in dozens of regional and ethnic styles. Brooklyn alone had nearly fifty. Beer was not only refreshing but nutritious, it was said—a “valuable substitute for vegetables,” as a member of the United States Sanitary Commission put it during the Civil War. The lagers brewed by Adolphus Busch and Frederick Pabst were among the best. In 1878, Maureen Ogle notes in her recent book “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer,” Busch’s St. Louis Lager took on more than a hundred European beers at a competition in Paris. The lager came home with the gold, causing an “immense sensation,” in the words of a reporter from the Times.
Then came Prohibition, followed hard by industrialization. Beer went from barrel to bottle and from saloon to home refrigerator, and only the largest companies could afford to manufacture and distribute it. A generation raised on Coca-Cola had a hard time readjusting to beer’s bitterness, and brewers diluted their recipes accordingly. In 1953, Miller High Life was dismissed by one competitor as a beer for “women and beginners.” Within a decade, most other beers were just as flavorless.
Beer has lagged well behind wine and organic produce in the ongoing reinvention of American cuisine. Yet the change over the past twenty years has been startling. In 1965, the United States had a single craft brewery: Anchor Brewing, in San Francisco. Today, there are nearly fifteen hundred. In liquor stores and upscale supermarkets, pumpkin ales and chocolate stouts compete for cooler space with wit beers, weiss beers, and imperial Pilsners. The King of Beers, once served in splendid isolation at many bars, is now surrounded by motley bottles with ridiculous names, like jesters at a Renaissance fair: SkullSplitter, Old Leghumper, Slam Dunkel, Troll Porter, Moose Drool, Power Tool, He’brew, and Ale Mary Full of Taste.
Dogfish is something of a mascot for this unruly movement. In the thirteen years since Calagione founded the brewery, it has gone from being the smallest in the country to the thirty-eighth largest. Calagione makes more beer with at least ten per cent alcohol than any other brewer, and his odd ingredients are often drawn from ancient or obscure beer traditions. The typical Dogfish ale is made with about four times as much grain as an industrial beer (hence its high alcohol content) and about twenty times as much hops (hence its bitterness). It is to Budweiser what a bouillabaisse is to fish stock.
“We are trying to explore the outer edges of what beer can be,” Calagione says. But the idea makes even some craft brewers nervous. “I find the term ‘extreme beer’ irredeemably pejorative,” Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, told me recently. “When a brewer says, ‘This has more hops in it than anything you’ve had in your life—are you man enough to drink it?,’ it’s sort of like a chef saying, ‘This stew has more salt in it than anything you’ve ever had—are you man enough to eat it?’ ”
Dogfish makes some very fine beers, Oliver says. But its reputation has been built on ales like its 120 Minute I.P.A., one of the strongest beers of its kind in the world. I.P.A. stands for India pale ale, an especially hoppy British style first made in the eighteenth century for the long sea voyage to the subcontinent. (Hops are a natural preservative as well as a flavoring.) A typical I.P.A. has six per cent alcohol and forty I.B.U.s—brewers’ parlance for international bittering units. Calagione’s version has eighteen per cent alcohol and a hundred and twenty I.B.U.s. It’s brewed for two hours, with continuous infusions of hops, then fermented with still more hops. “I don’t find it pleasant to drink,” Oliver says. “I find it unbalanced and shrieking.”
Others find it thrilling. “When you’re trying to create new brewing techniques and beer styles, you have to have a certain recklessness,” Jim Koch, whose Boston Beer Company brews Samuel Adams, and who coined the term “extreme beer,” told me. “Sam has that. He’s fearless, but he’s also got a good palate. He doesn’t put stuff into beer that doesn’t deserve to be there.”
The debate goes back, in one form or another, nearly five hundred years. According to the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot, or Purity Law, of 1516, beer can be made with only three ingredients: water, hops, and barley. (Yeast was left off the list because brewers didn’t know it existed; beer was naturally fermented, like sourdough bread.) German brewers still observe a version of the Reinheitsgebot, but Belgian brewers, just across the border, have cheerfully renounced it. Their krieks, wits, lambics, and gueuzes are among the world’s most remarkable beers, yet they’re often made with fruits or spices, or fortified with sugar, to become as potent as wine.
In America, brewers have long followed the German model: our major industrial breweries were all founded by German-Americans. But Calagione and others have lately wandered over to the Belgian side—and kept on going. “I’d probably be arrested, tarred and feathered, if I stepped off a plane in Berlin,” Calagione told me. Extreme brewers have helped turn American brewing into the most influential in the world. But they’ve also raised a basic question: When does beer cease to be beer?
On my first night in Delaware, I found a manila folder waiting for me at my hotel. It was filled with printouts of an e-mail exchange from earlier that year, between Calagione and a brewer in Finland named Juha Ikonen. Calagione was trying to find ingredients for a rustic juniper-flavored beer known as sahti, which Finnish farmers began making as early as the ninth century. He had tried to get Ikonen to send him whole juniper branches with needles intact, so that he could lay them in the bottom of his brewing vessel. But Ikonen thought the branches might get moldy on the flight over. In the end, they’d settled on juniper berries, hand-picked in Finland two weeks earlier. “Welcome Burk,” Calagione had scrawled on the folder. “Tomorrow we are so brewing Sahtea (our version of Sahti). . . . See ya in the Inn Foyer @ 8:30. *Beers in the fridge.”
The next morning, Calagione pulled up at the hotel in an old Dodge pickup truck. It looked like something out of “Paper Moon”: bulbous fenders, pop-eyed headlamps, red paint weathered nearly to pink. On the tailgate, Calagione had stencilled a line adapted from William Carlos Williams: “So much depends on a red wheelbarrow.” He had bought the truck from some firefighters in Rochester, he told me, and used it mostly as a family car. (Later that week, it would make an appearance at a “Touch the Truck!” event for toddlers.) But it was also handy for hauling supplies. In the back were a pitchfork, a large bag of Indian spices, and about twenty gray river rocks, collected by the brewery’s maintenance man. What the rocks were for, I’d soon find out.
“Sam is a wonderful showman,” Garrett Oliver told me. “He almost conceives the beer around the story. He’ll think, Wouldn’t it be cool if we carried the beer down the street and everyone put something new into it!” This is partly a matter of clever marketing and partly of a genuine creative temperament. Calagione has written or co-written three books on beer. He designs many of Dogfish’s labels and cites Andy Warhol and Coco Chanel as inspirations—“that fusion of commercialism and art.” The Emerson quote at the brewery’s entrance is both an eloquent mission statement and a reminder, as Calagione told some Dogfish fans when I was there, to “keep on drinking the good shit!”
Like most craft brewers, Calagione came to beer from something else. He grew up in Greenfield, Massachusetts, the middle child of an oral surgeon and the heir to a long line of winemakers. His father and his uncle used to drive to Worcester to meet the trains that brought grapes from California. When they got home, and the juice had been stomped out in the basement, Sam would help bottle it. The process seems to have stripped him of any reverence toward the product. His forefathers worked hard making wine, he recently wrote, “so that I might have the opportunity to produce a superior beverage.”
Calagione was a bright student and a scrappy athlete (to keep his weight up for the football team, his father made him eat a cheesesteak every night at ten-thirty). But by the spring of his senior year, at Northfield Mount Hermon prep, he had so many demerits that he was expelled. His offenses were of the usual Animal House variety: flipping a truck on campus; breaking into the skating rink and playing naked hockey; “surfing” on the roof of a Winnebago, going sixty miles per hour down I-91. As a junior, Calagione sometimes waited outside a local liquor store and got customers to buy him a case of beer. Back at school, he hid the bottles in his hockey bag and sold them to other students at a profit. “I remember when I got busted,” he told me. “The dean said, ‘You think you can make a living doing this?’ I didn’t have the foresight to say, ‘Yeah, maybe someday.’ ”
He never did graduate from high school, though he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English, at Muhlenberg College, in Pennsylvania. In 1992, he moved to Manhattan, to take writing classes at Columbia and work toward a Master of Fine Arts. It was there, while waiting tables at Nacho Mama’s Burritos in Morningside Heights, that he had his first taste of craft beer. Emboldened by the home-brewing movement, and the success of beers like New Albion, Sierra Nevada, and Samuel Adams, more than two hundred craft breweries had opened in the previous decade, as well as swarms of microbreweries and brewpubs. (A craft brewery, according to the Brewers Association, is one that produces less than two million barrels a year; a microbrewery produces less than fifteen thousand; and a brewpub serves at least a quarter of its beer in house.) Before long, Calagione was brewing beer in his apartment—his first was a sour-cherry ale—and spending his afternoons at the New York Public Library, researching the beer industry.
“I looked around and saw three breweries basically ruling the United States,” he told me. All but one per cent of the beer sold in the U.S. was still made by Miller, Coors, and Anheuser-Busch, along with mid-sized and foreign breweries such as Pabst and Heineken. And while craft breweries made wonderful beer, they were mostly focussed on classic German and British styles, such as pale ale and Pilsner. Calagione had something else in mind. “I’d read a copy of Michael Jackson’s ‘World Guide to Beer,’ and I thought, Holy shit! There are people out there making beer with fruit! There are Scottish ales made with heather flowers! Maybe I can make a living making beer that isn’t like anything else.” It was an opportunity to play David to the beer industry’s Goliaths, he says. “It was the same kind of thing that got me kicked out of prep school.”
Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats, the pub that Calagione opened in 1995, sits on the main drag of Rehoboth Beach, on Delaware’s southern shore. The pub’s name comes from a peninsula in Maine where Calagione spent summers as a boy; its location was inspired by his wife, Mariah, who grew up nearby. (She’s now co-owner of the brewery and its marketing director.) The property is only four blocks from the ocean, but was long considered snakebit. “Everyone said it was too far from the boardwalk,” Calagione says. “This isn’t Manhattan. People don’t like to walk.” Still, he liked the large parking lot and the shambling, open-raftered dining room. And he knew something the locals didn’t: Delaware was one of the last eight states in the country without a brewery. Publicity alone, he thought, ought to keep the place afloat for a while. Or at least until he learned to make beer.
As it turned out, there was a reason that Delaware had no breweries like Calagione’s. Prohibition had been over for sixty years, but it was still illegal for a pub to bottle and distribute its own beer. Calagione found this out not long after he’d signed the lease. Luckily, Delaware was also very small and very friendly to business. “I literally drove to Dover, asked which one is the House and which is the Senate, and started knocking on doors,” he remembers. “They said, ‘You want to do what, son? Well, write up a bill!’ ” Six months later, the governor signed the bill into law. The only hitch had come when Calagione was applying for his liquor license, and one of the commissioners brought up his recent arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol. Calagione admitted to the incident—a few weeks earlier, on his way home from a restaurant, he’d run into a parked car and dislocated his shoulder—but added a small correction. The actual infraction was a P.U.I., he said: pedalling under the influence. “Commissioner, I was on a bicycle.”
The tavern was a success from the day it opened. The beer took a little longer. Calagione had brewed fewer than ten batches before coming to Delaware, and he rarely used the same recipe twice. “I’d just grab herbs and spices and fruits from the kitchen and throw them in,” he says. “I used to think, Oh, it’s cool that every batch tastes different. It’s like snowflakes!” The pub’s brewing equipment consisted of three fifteen-gallon kegs on propane burners, and a rack of modified kegs for fermenting the beer. To keep up with demand, Calagione had to brew two or three times a day, every day; between shifts he slept on a mattress in the cellar. When the beer was ready, he and two employees would don ski goggles and green garbage bags and bottle the beer by hand, with a siphon and mechanical capper. In ten hours they could fill a hundred cases.
“It was a hot ghetto mess,” Bryan Selders, Dogfish’s lead brewer, remembers. By the time Selders arrived, in 2002, Calagione had jury-rigged some larger kettles out of stainless-steel tanks from a yogurt factory. To reach the cooked barley, or mash, Selders had to climb onto a metal grate twelve feet high and straddle the edge of the boiling kettle—one foot on the grate, the other on the kettle’s lid. Once, during a morning production meeting, Selders fell in. “The lid just gave way,” he says. The mash in the kettle was hot—around a hundred and fifty degrees—but came only to the tops of his boots. “I went home, took a shower, watched a little Sally Jessy, and came back.”
Dogfish was on the verge of bankruptcy for many of those years. More than seven hundred craft breweries opened in the United States between 1995 and 2000, yet their combined market share increased by less than a quarter. Some brewers were too inexperienced to make good beer—a 1996 issue of Consumer Reports found a number of the most expensive brands “flawed and stale-tasting”—others too cynical. Companies like Bad Frog simply contracted other breweries to make beer for them, then slapped on a silly label—in this case, a frog flipping off customers. The industrial breweries, meanwhile, were busy acquiring and buying shares in smaller companies (Celis, Shipyard, Red Hook, Widmer) or creating fake craft beers of their own: Blue Moon, Red Wolf, Eisbock, Elk Mountain. When most of those beers failed, their owners settled for squeezing craft brewers from the other side: paying bar owners and distributors to carry only their products. “It was economic Darwinism,” Calagione says. “Supply finally overtook demand.”
Dogfish’s ragged beginnings were its saving grace, he says. “If we’d bought a turnkey brewhouse for three hundred thousand dollars, I have no doubt in my mind that we would have gone bust.” The restaurant paid for the brewery at first, then the brewery grew as the beer improved. By working in small batches, Calagione became an experimental brewer a decade before it was fashionable. He made a medieval gruit with yarrow root and grains of paradise. He made an African tej with bitter gesho bark and raw honey. He made a stout with roasted chicory and St.-John’s-wort (“The world’s only antidepressant depressant,” he called it). While other brewers were dyeing their beer green for St. Patrick’s Day, Calagione brewed his with blue-green algae. “It tasted like appetizing pond scum,” he says. “The first sip, you were like, ‘Wow, that tasted like pond scum. But you know what? I kind of want a second sip.’ ”
His customers were forgiving, if not always enthusiastic. When Calagione bottled his first twelve-ounce beers for sale in New Jersey, he decided to celebrate with a publicity stunt. He would build a wooden boat and row the beer across Delaware Bay—a distance of eighteen nautical miles. “The idea was handmade beer from a handmade boat,” he says. “But I forgot to get press releases out.” When he arrived, there were four fans to greet him.
The turning point came in 1999, when Calagione was watching a cooking show on television. The chef, who was making a soup, was saying that several grindings of pepper, added to the pot at different points, would give the dish more flavor than a single dose added at the beginning. Not long afterward, at a Salvation Army store, Calagione came across an old electric football set—the kind with a playing field that vibrates to send miniature players skittering across it. Back at home, he found a five-gallon bucket and drilled some holes in the bottom. He laid a pair of wooden blocks on the football set, put the bucket on the blocks, and strapped the whole thing together with duct tape. (“Pretty high-tech M.I.T. stuff,” he says.) Later, when his kettle was boiling, he put hops in the bucket, perched his contraption at a slant above the kettle, and set the game vibrating. Soon, a steady stream of hops was falling through the bucket onto the playing field and sliding into the kettle.
The beer born of that experiment, known as 60 Minute I.P.A., is still Calagione’s biggest seller. He calls it a beer geek’s idea of a “session beer”—mild enough to be consumed in quantity, but with an unexpected kick. It has the bright, citrusy bouquet of a much hoppier brew, without the bitterness. Wine Enthusiast tasted hints of rose petal, tangerine, orange zest, and nutmeg in it, and rated it a “classic.”
The extreme-beer era was under way.
The pub in Rehoboth is now a proper experimental brewery. Although most of Dogfish’s beer is made at its large modern facility in Milton, twenty minutes away, Calagione and his staff use the old equipment once a month to try out new recipes. “I need my brewers to be able to blow off steam,” he told me, as we were driving to the pub that morning to make the Finnish sahti. If he had to brew the same beer every day, he said, he knew how he’d feel. He cocked his forefinger and put it to his temple.
The experimental beers are served on tap in the pub, at festivals, and at beer dinners that Calagione hosts around the country. Dogfish still doesn’t advertise, aside from a few small notices in industry magazines, relying instead on word of mouth from “beer evangelists,” as Calagione calls them. Whenever a beer is released, he monitors the chatter on Internet forums like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. If he has a hit, and it’s not too expensive to produce (the arctic-cloudberry ale averaged out to about nineteen dollars a snifter), he has Bryan Selders reformulate it for the larger brewery.
Selders arrived about an hour after we did, driving a van filled with sacks of grain. He was wearing what looked like a gas-station attendant’s uniform, with his name stitched over one front pocket and the Dogfish logo over the other. His hair was gelled into a miniature Mohawk—more Tintin than Billy Idol—and his eyes, framed by thick black glasses, wore their usual look of ironic bewilderment. Selders, who is thirty-three, was a painter and ska guitarist before he became a brewer. When he and Calagione aren’t making beer, they sometimes perform together at the pub as a beer-themed hip-hop duo called the Pain Relievaz (sample lyrics: “You’re the barley virgin that my malt mill will deflour”). At work, they maintain an amiably fractious relationship, built on a role reversal of sorts. Selders plays the boss, the beleaguered perfectionist, searching for efficiencies and citing studies from brewing journals; Calagione plays the wayward talent, sloppy but charismatic and, occasionally, inspired. “I’m a little scared of this project, to be honest with you,” Selders told me, as he was lugging the grain into the brewhouse. “Sam’s ideas . . . the execution doesn’t always match the theory.”
Every beer is a brewer’s invention to some degree—a combination of ingredients that could never be found in nature. A barrel of crushed grapes, left to its own devices, can turn into a crude sort of Beaujolais nouveau. The winemaker’s job is mostly to prod the process along. That isn’t true of beer. For grain to turn into an ale or lager, it has to be malted, cooked, strained, cooked, strained, fermented in a barrel, and sometimes again in a bottle. “Mother Nature makes wine,” Calagione likes to say. “Brewers make beer.”
Which isn’t to say that beer is any less natural, or less subject to nature’s vagaries. One year, a drought in the Dakotas may leave the barley with half its usual starch. The next, a hot summer in the Yakima Valley could turn the hops less bitter. The water in the mash may be hard or soft (Bavarian water is great for dark lagers, not so good for pale ales), the fermentation tanks sealed tight or exposed to the open air. And at the end of the process lies a notoriously finicky organism. All brewing yeasts eventually run out of sugar or self-destruct, poisoning themselves on their own alcohol. Only the hardiest strains—“freaks of nature,” Calagione calls them—can produce the most potent beers. Dogfish has its own yeast-propagation lab, but some strains give up too soon, causing what’s known as a stuck fermentation. “Our brewery is a hundred people relying on a few billion yeast cells,” Calagione says. “Sometimes they outvote us.”
There’s no reason, given all these variables, that a given beer should always taste the same. We expect a Merlot to change from year to year, crop to crop. Why not a Michelob? Beer has been an industrial commodity for so long that it no longer seems an organic substance. And brewing, in its complexity, allows just enough control to maintain the illusion. If winemakers are Dionysian, brewers have had to become Apollonian. Age will only improve a Bordeaux, winemakers say. Brewers tend to prefer their beer fresh, exactly as they made it. Their skill lies in compensating for nature as much as collaborating with it.
Then again most brewers don’t make beer with rocks. When sahti was first brewed, in the Middle Ages, Calagione told me, Finnish farmers used wooden kettles. The wood couldn’t be set directly on a fire, so the brewers heated up rocks and threw them into the mash, caramelizing the barley and giving it a smoky flavor. Calagione wanted to use the same method, but he wasn’t sure that he had the right material. “I told my maintenance guy to get rocks without a lot of quartz in them,” he said. “Otherwise, when they get hot, they’ll explode in your face.”
The brewhouse was a cinder-block mudroom to the side of the building, with a trio of blackened kettles inside. When Selders had dumped the grain into the mash kettle—three hundred and fifty pounds of malted Pilsner barley and fifty-five pounds of rye—Calagione loaded the rocks from the truck into a wheelbarrow and rolled them into the kitchen. The pub’s menu was designed around a wood-fired grill, used to cook burgers, steaks, seafood, and beer-battered pizza. (The beef came from cows fed on the brewery’s spent grain.) Calagione strapped on a pair of safety glasses and peered into the oak and hickory embers. “If there are no second-degree burns, I’ll call this a success,” he said. Then he heaved in a rock, sending up a shower of sparks. “Let me know if they start to explode,” he told one of the cooks.
The grain had been cooked to mash by now, and a thick, lacy foam had bubbled to the surface. It was here that A. E. Housman’s famous lines—“Malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man”—were borne out. When grain is partially sprouted, it builds up enzymes that can break down starch and turn it into sugar. In a living seed, this sugar fuels the plant’s growth. In beer, it’s digested by yeast, producing alcohol. The foam on the mash was a sign that the enzymes were at work. After an hour or so, the malty liquid, known as wort, would be strained off and cooked again with hops and flavorings. (Malt and hops are the yin and yang of beer: the one sweet, the other bitter.) Once it cooled, the yeast would go in, and the beer would be left to ferment, producing an array of flavor compounds in addition to alcohol: peppery phenols, fruity esters, and so on. “Beer is all about what your yeast is doing,” Selders said.
The year before, Selders had taken some wort intended for 60 Minute I.P.A., divided it into four batches, and added a different yeast to each. “They turned into four completely different beers,” he said. His favorite was made with a German Kölsch strain, used in the delicate straw-colored ales of Cologne. For the sahti, Calagione had decided on a Hefeweizen strain instead. He had read that Finnish brewers used baker’s yeast to make a spicy but slightly chalky beer. The Hefeweizen yeast would provide similar hints of clove and banana, he hoped, “but without the weirdness.”
When the mash had been cooking for a while, Selders climbed onto a stool and took a temperature reading: a hundred and fifty-five degrees. “We’re ready for the rocks,” he said. Calagione grabbed his pitchfork and hurried back to the kitchen. Inside the stove, the rocks were white-hot. A few had burst apart, though not loudly enough to alarm the cooks: the kitchen radio was turned up high, to Bob Dylan braying over a squall of Gypsy violin. Calagione stabbed his pitchfork into the flames and lifted out a rock balanced on the tines. “This is going to be an adventure,” he said, dumping it into the wheelbarrow with a clang.
Soon, he and the pub’s manager, Jason, were running back and forth between the brewhouse and the stove, carrying rocks in oven mitts or between metal plates. As the rocks plopped into the mash, they sent up jets of steam and glutinous bubbles, until the whole kettle was boiling. Calagione stripped off his mitts, now charred beyond use, and threw them to the ground. His face was bright red and sheened with sweat. “When we do this next year, at the big brewery, we’ll use the rocks outside in a small tank,” he said. “Then we’ll mix that mash in with the rest inside.”
Selders rolled his eyes. “Yes . . . it is already done,” he said, wiggling his fingers as if casting a spell. Later, when I asked what he thought about Calagione’s plan, he shook his head. “Yeah. Not going to happen.” But Calagione overheard him. “They didn’t want to do continual hopping, either!” he said.
The last stage of the brewing process was the most unorthodox. Traditionally, sahti is flavored with juniper alone, but Calagione wanted something more unusual. After the hops and the juniper berries had been added to the wort, he took the bag of spices from his truck and steeped it in a bucket of hot water. The mixture contained cardamom, coriander, ginger, allspice, rampe leaves, lemongrass, curry powder, and black tea, custom blended for Calagione in India. It would be added at the last moment, he said, so that its volatile flavors wouldn’t boil off. The idea was to amplify the already spicy flavors of the juniper berries and the Hefeweizen yeast—to turn the sahti into Sahtea.
Selders walked over to the bucket and crouched down beside it. He took a wooden spoon and trailed it through the inky gunk. “You want to use all of this?” he said. “Because this is a lot of tea, dude.”
Calagione nodded, a little sheepishly. “We’ll see. We might want to use all of it.”
Selders stared at the tea. He lifted a spoonful to his nose and took a cautious sniff. “So you went with curry, huh?”
“Nowhere near as much as I did with coriander and lemongrass.”
Restraint can have its advantages. A well-made German beer is both tasty and relatively wholesome: in Bavaria, it’s considered a foodstuff and included in soldiers’ rations. It’s unlikely to give you a headache, upset your stomach, or cause an allergic reaction, as the acids and biological amines in Belgian lambics may, and it can have a surprising range of flavors—from sweet Helles to dark Doppelbock to smoky Rauchbier. The strictures of the Reinheitsgebot have helped turn German brewers into the most resourceful and technically capable in the world. By mixing and matching strains of yeast, varieties of hops, and pale or roasted grains, they can produce almost any flavor found in fruit or spice. With three ingredients, they can give the illusion of a dozen.
The same discipline, if not creativity, has helped make Budweiser the most popular beer in the world. Its sheer consistency, across tens of billions of bottles and cans, is a technical marvel, and even the crankiest craft brewers harbor a secret admiration for it. When I was in Belgium recently, I visited the Trappist monastery at Orval, near the French Ardennes. Orval is home to one of the world’s great beers: a dry, earthy, multilayered concoction made with brewer’s yeast and a wild strain called Brettanomyces. The monastery is circled by sandstone walls like a medieval fortress (it was founded in the twelfth century and rebuilt in the nineteen-twenties), but its brewery is as high tech as any I’ve seen. From the grain bins in the attic to the onion-domed copper kettles on the middle floors to the fermentation tanks in the basement, the operation is largely gravity-driven and computer-controlled—an android in a monk’s robe.
I asked the brewmaster, Jean-Marie Rock, which American beer he likes best. He thought for a moment, squinting down his bladelike nose, and narrowed his lips to a point. Then he raised a finger in the air. “Budweiser!” he said. “Tell them that the brewer at Orval likes Budweiser!” He smiled. “I know they detest it, but it is quite good.” Later, though, when he described the newest beers coming out of Belgium, they sounded a good deal closer to Calagione’s. “People would rather pay a little more and have a special product than to pay a lot for a Pilsner and have something banal,” he said. “I like Budweiser, but I wouldn’t pay two euros for a Budweiser.”
Even at Dogfish, the line between high end and low, industrial and craft, can get blurry. As Selders was piping the cooked wort into the fermentation tank that day, he turned to Calagione and me with a grin. “Is everyone excited about Budweiser American Ale?” he said. “It’s going to taste great!” Calagione gave him a flat, brooding look. He knew he was being baited. Anheuser-Busch had been advertising its newest product all summer, clearly targeting the craft-beer market. Like other ales, the new beer is brewed at a relatively high temperature with a top-fermenting yeast. It’s a little fruitier and more full-flavored than regular Budweiser, which, like all lagers, is brewed at a lower temperature with a bottom-fermenting yeast. In regular Budweiser, the bitterness of the hops is kept “at the threshold of perception,” in Garrett Oliver’s words. American Ale has more of a bite, thanks to a dose of whole Cascade hops—a craft-brewer favorite—that’s added to the beer during a second fermentation.
“Those people know what they’re doing,” Selders said, goading Calagione. “What, you don’t think it’s true?”
“I think they can make a technically correct beer. But I don’t even want to try it.”
“As a brewer, you’re obligated to try it.”
“To give you some context for why it’s so distasteful to me,” Calagione said. “At the same time that they’re making this relatively hoppy wanna-be craft beer that exists only to confuse the consumer—so that they can be culture vultures—they are running ads that say that the darker a beer is the more impurities it has. It’s beer racism."
“You don’t see the hypocrisy in that?”
“I see it. But if you are going to take that stance you shouldn’t shop at Food Lion, shouldn’t go to Borders, shouldn’t do any of that stuff.”
Calagione shrugged and grabbed a shovel, then climbed into the kettle and began scooping out the spent mash. He liked to frame his business as an epic battle between small, stouthearted brewers and their evil industrial overlords. But his loyalty to craft beer was more in the manner of a guy who has rooted for the underdog all his life. (His own football teams, in junior high and high school, had a combined record of 0–72–2). “Look,” he told me later. “I’m not afraid to pay compliments where compliments are due. Anheuser-Busch’s quality—if quality is consistency—is second to none. But I’m frustrated that that one beer has been hammered down people’s throats. I mean, banana cream pie may be your favorite fucking food. But if you ate banana cream pie every day you would hate it, too.”
Every year at the end of the summer, Calagione throws a bocce tournament in Milton, on the brewery’s two oyster-shell courts. “Bocce’s an Italian thing,” he says. “But it’s also a sport that you can play without putting down your beer.” The tournament culminates in the evening, when a large catapult is rolled out onto the lawn. The catapult was built by Frank Payton, the same maintenance man who found the river rocks for the sahti, and was designed to hurl pumpkins—a fall tradition in Delaware. In this case, it’s armed with thirty cans of industrial beer and fired, with a precision born of years of practice, into a gargantuan sculpture of a toilet a hundred yards away. “We tried to throw a keg once,” Calagione told me. “But it misfired and knocked down a street lamp.”
The event evokes earlier, wackier days, but its anti-establishment vibe can seem a little at odds with the rather large factory beside it. Dogfish now sells about twenty-five million bottles’ worth of beer a year. It has almost quadrupled in size since 2004, but still can’t meet demand: about a fifth of its orders go unfilled. Calagione’s salvaged kettles have been replaced by a state-of-the-art brewery, his ski goggles and garbage bags by an automated bottle-filling line and a three-person microbiology department. (Every beer is tested forty times per batch, including blind tastings in a sensory lab.) When the facility expanded last year, the roof had to be cut open so that a crane could drop in nine new three-story tanks. Well before that, the brewery’s wastewater had overwhelmed the town’s sewage system: the yeasts in it were outcompeting the bacteria used for waste treatment. The water is now trucked out several times a day and sprayed on local farms.
“Sam is the Adolphus Busch of his generation,” the beer historian Maureen Ogle told me. But he has plenty of rivals. Koch’s Boston Beer Company, for one, still makes twenty-five times more beer. The Darwinian beer wars of the past decade have tended to leave the best brewers standing. While sales of wine and spirits grew by between two and four per cent last year, craft-beer sales grew by twelve per cent. “Part of what we’re seeing is a return to normality,” Garrett Oliver told me. “It’s weird for a country of three hundred million to have one kind of beer. But we’re getting back to what we had before—and unless we go into a deep depression it’s never going back.”
Oliver, who is forty-six and black, with a trim beard and a resonant voice, has done his best to become the respectable face of craft brewing—its Orson Welles. While Calagione wears jeans and a rumpled shirt even on the “Today” show, Oliver attends almost every event in a jacket and tie. One blazer bears the Brooklyn Brewery logo, woven in steel by the same tailors who stitch crests for the British Royal Family, and his beers have some of the same suavity. “From what I’ve seen, a lot of people still think of us as kids playing with toys,” he told me. “So anything I can do to ennoble beer is worthwhile, whether dressing up the packaging or dressing up for a beer dinner.”
For all its success, craft beer has yet to reach the mainstream. Ninety-six per cent of the market—about sixty-seven billion bottles a year—still belongs to non-craft beers and imports. Oliver remembers talking to a brewer at Anheuser-Busch a few years ago, when sales of Michelob had fallen to about a third of a billion bottles a year. “He told me, ‘I wish that brand would just die.’ And that one beer was the size of the entire American craft-brewing industry.” The disparity is partly a function of poor marketing, Ogle argues—craft brewers are still preaching to the converted—and partly of cultural conditioning. Until more Americans wean themselves from ketchup, soda, and other sweet foods, they may never enjoy the taste of hops. “When I talk to people like Sam, I’m constantly amazed at how persuaded they are that everyone drinks craft beer,” she says. “If that’s true, why are they still sitting at four per cent?”
In a decade’s time, Oliver believes, breweries like his could claim a quarter of the market. (Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, predicts something closer to ten per cent in twenty years.) But only if they don’t scare people off first. “The whole idea of extreme beer is bad for craft brewing,” Oliver says. “It doesn’t expand the tent—it shrinks it. If I want someone to taste a beer, and I make it sound outlandish and crazy, there is a certain kind of person who will say, ‘Oh, let me try it.’ But that is a small audience. It’s one that you can build a beer on, but not a movement.”
Late one morning, Calagione and I drove to Philadelphia to see an archeological chemist he knows named Patrick McGovern. Calagione looked washed out and a little crotchety—a rare thing—after one too many glasses of grappa the night before. When I mentioned Oliver’s misgivings to him, he smirked, as if hearing them for the hundredth time. “Garrett and I are good friends, but we definitely disagree on this,” he said. “It’s a purist versus populist position. If all of our palates are subjective, who am I and who is Garrett to decide whether there’s too much hops in a beer, or whether you should be putting lemongrass or rampe leaves in it? As long as it finds an audience, it’s valid.”
Extreme beer is a return to normality, too, Calagione believes. It’s just the normality of a thousand years ago, or several thousand, rather than a hundred. If the Reinheitsgebot is still the touchstone for most American brewers, Calagione’s is a bronze bowl from King Midas’ tomb.
The historical Midas was a Phrygian ruler in what is now central Turkey. When he or one of his close relatives was buried, around 730 B.C., the tomb was filled with more than a hundred and fifty drinking vessels—parting toasts to the dead king. By the time they were excavated, in 1957, the liquid inside them had evaporated. But Patrick McGovern, forty years later, was able to analyze some residue from a bowl and identify its chemical content. By matching the compounds to those found in the foods and spices of ancient Turkey, McGovern gradually pieced together the liquid’s main ingredients: honey, barley, and grapes, and a yellow substance that was probably saffron. It was a beer, but like none we’ve ever tasted.
“Beer is a much older concept than the Reinheitsgebot,” McGovern told us later, at the University of Pennsylvania. He was sitting at a chipped metal desk in his basement office at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, surrounded by sagging bookshelves and dusty lab equipment: a furnace, a microscale, a spectrometer, a liquid chromatograph. Here and there, chunks of pottery and other artifacts were wrapped in plastic or aluminum foil and stuffed in file drawers or ratty cardboard cases. “You’re taking nine thousand years of brewing history and just looking at the last five hundred years of it,” he said.
McGovern is a wizardly figure with a long white beard and large glasses that seem to draw his eyes together at the inner corners. He has a quiet but penetrating voice, a sharp wit, and a near total lack of pretension. (When brewing at Dogfish, he has been known to pour himself a chicory stout for breakfast.) He and Calagione first met eight years ago, at a dinner in honor of Michael Jackson, the great British beer writer. McGovern had recently published his findings on King Midas and was hoping to convince someone to make a modern-day replica of the beverage. (Anchor Brewing had done something similar a few years earlier, when it made a beer based on an ancient Sumerian hymn to the beer goddess, Ninkasi.) As it turned out, several brewers took up the challenge and sent beers to his house over the next few months. “Some were pretty good,” he says. “But Dogfish Head’s was the best.”
Midas Touch, as it was later called, has a brilliant rose-gold color—every batch contains about a thousand dollars’ worth of saffron—and a thick, honeyed, spicy flavor: a cross between beer, mead, and wine. It has become Dogfish’s most decorated drink, winning a gold medal at the Great American Beer festival, another gold at the International Mead Festival, and a silver at the World Beer Cup. “I look at beers like these as an opportunity to drink history,” Calagione said. “They’re liquid time capsules.”
Earlier that summer, he and McGovern had brewed their most recent project: Theobroma, or “food of the gods.” It was based on Mayan and Aztec ceremonial drinks, and on residues of the earliest known fermented cacao beverage, found in Honduran pots from between 1400 and 1100 B.C. It contained cocoa nibs, ancho chilies, honey, barley, and annatto seeds. “I kept complaining that it needs more chocolate,” McGovern said. “I wanted to make it more reddish, because it was equated with blood and human sacrifice.” Calagione laughed, saying, “And I told him, ‘O.K., I’ll get back to you on that.’ ”
Beer is less ancient than wine, McGovern went on to say, because it requires more technology: agriculture to grow the grain, fire and kettles to cook it. But, once invented, it quickly spread. “It wasn’t just in one part of the world,” he said. “It was all over.” If wine was rare and therefore aristocratic—it could be made only once a year, when fruit was ripe—beer trickled down to the working class. All you needed was a little malted grain and something bitter to balance its sweetness. Before barley became the grain of choice, brewers used millet and rice. Even after hops were domesticated, around 700 A.D., they threw in wormwood, henbane, cowslip, ivy, mugwort, bog myrtle, elderberry, oak leaf, laurel leaf, autumn crocus, or wild rosemary. Some plants were poisonous, most were not, and they gave the beer an endless variety of flavors.
The Reinheitsgebot, when Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria imposed it in 1516, had less to do with keeping peasants from poisoning themselves—never a great concern of the gentry—than with controlling the hops and barley crops. It made a virtue of trade restrictions. And beer, that great bouillabaisse of an invention, became nearly as predictable as wine.
Extreme brewers are doing their best to help it devolve. This past October, I joined Calagione at the Great American Beer Festival, in Denver, for the première of his Sahtea and Theobroma. The festival was founded in 1982 by a home brewer named Charlie Papazian, when its title still sounded like an oxymoron. “That’s a great idea, Charlie,” Michael Jackson told Papazian, in so many words. “Only what will you serve for beer?” Twenty-six years later, more than eighteen hundred beers were on tap at the Denver convention center. A vast hangar had been divided into booths for four hundred and thirty breweries, grouped by geographic region. Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller had their usual elaborate stage sets, and most beers followed the classic German and English styles. Still, the night belonged to extreme beer.
Wandering through the hall in the hour before it opened, I saw signs for beers called Goat Toppler, Chicken Killer, and Old Headwrecker, Incinerator, Detonator, Skull Annihilator, and the Obamanator. Many were double I.P.A.s that seemed to be competing for the highest I.B.U. rating. But others were faithful re-creations of ancient recipes, or else beers invented from whole cloth. “When you’re making an extreme beer, it’s like pushing beyond the sound barrier,” Jim Koch told me. “All of a sudden, everything is silent. I remember when I first tasted my Triple Bock. It dawned on me that beer has been around for thousands of years, and I am tasting something that no brewer has ever tasted. It was inspiring, beautiful, almost reverential.” Even Garrett Oliver seemed to be bowing to the trend. His booth featured two wonderful bottle-fermented ales and a pale ale called BLAST!, with eight kinds of English and American hops. “No, this is NOT a double I.P.A.,” a sign beneath the tap read. “Even if you believe in those.”
The festival was sold out for the first time. Over the next few days, some twenty-eight thousand attendees would pay fifty dollars for a wristband and a small plastic glass for tasting samples. The outcome was predictable. When the doors were flung open at five-thirty, six thousand people barrelled in and began drinking immediately, in great quantity. They wandered around in Viking horns, jester bells, and hats shaped like foaming steins, their bellies jutting from beer-themed T-shirts. One shirt showed Jesus hoisting a frothy mug with the caption “King of the Brews.” To make sure that the noise stayed near the shattering point, a bagpipe ensemble roamed the hall, blasting fanfares at unexpected moments. Whenever there was a lull, some oaf would drop his glass on the concrete floor and the entire assembly—as per tradition—would erupt into an epic whoop.
“It’s amazing how well people behave, given how many are here and how much alcohol there is,” Bob Pease, the vice-president of the Brewers Association, told me. In his sixteen years at the event, he noted with some pride, no one had been killed or seriously injured. But, then, security was pervasive. Uniformed police, private security guards, and hundreds of volunteers prowled the booths, slicing the wristband off anyone who had overindulged. At one point, late in the evening, after I’d stumbled over a power line (or something), I went up to get a free sample. A guard hustled over to the server and muttered, “Go easy on the pour.”
Calagione, for his part, had no time to drink. Going to the Great American Beer Festival with him, a friend of his had told me, is like attending a Star Trek convention with Captain Kirk. Wherever he went, beer geeks and fellow-brewers clustered around, taking pictures, handing him books to sign, or taping his greetings on a handheld recorder. The Dogfish booth was mobbed. While most others had five or ten people in front of them, Calagione’s crowd spilled across the concrete till it engulfed the Blue Moon booth across the way. I helped him work the taps for the first half hour, then slipped off with samples of Theobroma and Sahtea.
Like many craft-beer drinkers, I’d started out liking Pilsners and pale ales, and found myself craving more and more hops. The Theobroma managed to satisfy that taste indirectly. It was a lovely amber-colored beer with a hint of bitter chocolate at the beginning and an afterburn of chilies. But despite its ten per cent alcohol, it seemed almost too fainthearted. It was the Sahtea that I loved. For all Selders’s concern, the tea and spices in it hovered politely in the background, leaving the yeast to run the show. Cloudy and golden, with a lush flowering of bananas and cloves, it tasted like something a trader might have sipped a century ago, standing in a colonial market in Ceylon, with open baskets of tea and spices all around. It wasn’t an extreme beer by any stretch, and it certainly didn’t taste Finnish. But it was a time capsule nonetheless.When the session was over and the booth was packed up, when six thousand drunken revellers had descended on the streets of Denver, and the other Dogfish brewers had followed in search of more beer, Calagione and I walked back to our hotel. “Remember what Patrick was saying that day in his office, about how alcohol affects the brain?” he said. I nodded. McGovern had shown us a paper illustrated with scans of animals’ brains. Alcohol’s emotional effect is unusually complex, he had said. It starts out as a stimulant and only later, when you’ve had a lot, becomes a depressant. Calagione laughed. “Does it work that way for you?” he said. “Because it doesn’t for me. I never get around to the depressant part.”