Monday, June 30, 2014

The legendary Dogfish: not yet 21

   Delaware is a very small state, just three little counties (and that's at low tide, the joke runs). Where the southern county fronts on the Atlantic, it offers some excellent beaches; Rehoboth  Beach in particular has long been the go-to spot for people fleeing the sweltering summers in the "other Washington".   In 1995, a Massachusetts guy named Sam Calagione came to Rehoboth with a wife, Mariah, whose hometown it was, and a couple hundred thousand dollars raised to open a pub and brewery.  Named for a peninsula on the Maine coast where his family had a summer cottage.
    By the time a kitchen and restaurant were ready to go, they were down to about twenty thousand. Which didn't buy much brewing equipment then or now.  What it bought was a ten-gallon system cobbled out of half-barrel kegs.  Calagione describes the early days in his book Brewing Up a Business (2012):  "To make enough beer for the restaurant, I had to brew two or three batches a day five or six days a week.  I quickly got bored brewing the same beers over and over again, so....I would grab some apricots or maple syrup or raisins and toss them into the beer."  And so, dismissing the Reinheitsgebot as a five-hundred-year-old Bavarian law that has long since outlived its usefulness, Sam was off to the races.
    From ten gallons a batch to two hundred barrels (631,000 gallons) a batch in nineteen years--that's explosive growth.  Keeping the pub and a small brewery (now up to five barrels) in Rehoboth, Dogfish moved the large production work to Milton, a pretty town a few miles inland, and opened a fifty-barrel system there in 2002.   Wasn't too many years before they outgrew that (sold it to Russian River Brewing in 2008) and built a hundred-barrel plant.  That equipment is still turning out most of the quirky brands, while the humongous two-hundred barrel system, brought on last September, turns out the sales leaders, the 60-minute IPA and the 90-minute IPA.

    The sales those two lead came to over two hundred thousand barrels last year, but the passion still goes into the descendants of those apricot and maple syrup experiments.  Here's what I sampled on a recent visit:
First, some Midas Touch (9% abv), a recipe deduced from clues found in the tomb of King Midas, buried some 2,700 years ago.  Brewed as a one-off for an archeological society event, with honey, thyme, muscat grapes, and saffron, it became an unexpected sensation and stayed in the rotation.  A cloudy golden ale with a sweet finish.  Then an Etruscan Ale (8.5%), dating back to 700 B.C., around the time of Midas.  Those Etrsucans, north of Rome, added to their wort hazelnuts, honey, pomegranate, gentian root, and myrrh.  The combination (was it the pomegranate or the myrrh?) created the most amazing aroma in this ale, sharp but surprisingly pleasing.  After this, a couple of IPAs (Burton Baton, 10%, oak-aged imperial) and Sixty-One (6.5%, with syrah grape must added) were almost pedestrian,  Almost. And only after these ancient recipes, both derived from digs and research by Penn Professor McGovern (the Indiana Jones of ancient beer).
    On the tour one can also learn about the Palo Santo wood from Paraguay, so hard bullets fired into its trunk just bounce off, imported here to make a 10,000-gallon wooden tank used to make Palo Santo Marron, a 12% Brown Ale of epic flavor.  The bottling line cranks out 650 12-ouncers a minute.  The company's motto, "off-centered ales for off-centered people," is reiterated throughout the tour and Sam's book.

    I thought about that ten-gallon startup back in 1995 and what a mighty oak grew out of that little acorn here.  The small-scale startups I have recently seen in our Washington, Whiskey Ridge in Darrington and MP 111 in Cashmere--how far will  they get in nineteen years?  Still brewing, I hope. But the lucky lightning doesn't strike everyone.  A couple of points in Sam's book stayed with me.  Niche-settling for one. He notes that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, were it being launched today, would be plunged into a very competitive market where so many west coast brewers are turning out excellent pales.  Getting there first, Sierra was able to enjoy a standard-setting status.
   A second point is how many breweries were started in the mid-nineties as Dogfish was, and how many soon failed because they were started by people who smelled profit here (quoting M. Thenardiere from Les Mis) without being passionate about doing God's work, per Ben Franklin, by making people happy with good beer,  We still have a lot of breweries celebrating or closing on 20th year anniversaries, making a modest profit even if they didn't catch the lucky lighting.
(Visited 06/13/14)

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