Talking Head - My dinner with a rock star

Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione holds court at the Brick Store Pub

"The Reinheitsgebot is a modern form of art censorship," iconoclastic brewer Sam Calagione tells the crowd at a Dogfish Head beer dinner at the Brick Store Pub, referring to the German beer purity law. "Thousands of years before that law, the Chinese were making beer from hawthorn fruit, wildflower honey and chrysanthemum flowers. Why limit yourself to just four ingredients?" After a taste of Chateau Jiahu, Dogfish Head's interpretation of that ancient beverage made using the same ingredients, it's hard to argue.

Chateau Jiahu is the second beer from Dogfish Head to be based on an ancient beverage. The Dogfish Head Midas Touch is made from ingredients found in a tomb in Turkey believed to be that of the ruler who inspired the King Midas story. It includes Muscat grapes, honey and saffron, giving it a character not unlike a chardonnay. The experimentation with "archaeological" beers continues with the release this month of Theobroma, based on a 3,000-year-old beverage found in Honduras. Like the original, it's brewed with cocoa powder and cocoa nibs, along with honey, chilies and annatto. "It's actually more cocoa than beer," Calagione says. "It's not going to be sweet – more like rich cocoa flavor without the sweetness."

These archaeological recreations came about when Dr. Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania went looking for someone to recreate the beverages identified using molecular analysis of archaeological vessels. The late Michael Jackson, the English beer writer, suggested the "freaks" at Dogfish Head. Although the analysis does not provide proportions or indicate the processes used, the ingredient list was enough to inspire Calagione to create modern interpretations that are attractive and drinkable. "With the Midas Touch, we filter it to make it a little more attuned to modern palates, but with the others we wanted them to be rough and vibrant and primal, the way they probably were back then."

Calagione's penchant for unusual beers has made him something of a rock star in the beer-geek world. Never one to follow convention, Calagione's Dogfish Head has been concocting "off-centered ales for off-center people" since the mid-1990s, including Pangaea, a beer brewed with ingredients from all seven continents, and 120-minute IPA, with 120 IBUs (international bitterness units) and 20 percent alcohol by volume (making it illegal in Georgia).

The emphasis on high ABV and huge amounts of hops, along with a pull-no-punches attitude, has brought some criticism. Some say the culture of extreme beer has dulled American taste buds for the subtleties of classic English- and German-style beer. Calagione says he has no problem with brewers pursuing more traditional styles, but has no desire to go that route. "They can brew whatever the fuck they want," he says bluntly. "This is America. If the big beers didn't have a place, then capitalism would take care of it. The fact that the brewers making the big stuff are growing says that it deserves to exist."

Calagione admits he doesn't get as much time as he'd like to actually brew anymore, but he recognizes that his seven brewers are better at the technical aspects of brewing, leaving him free to pursue his crazy muse two or three times a year and come up with new beers. He spends much of his time now doing promotions, including appearances with wine educator Marnie Old for their book He Said Beer, She Said Wine, where he makes the case for beer as the great food-pairing beverage. I wondered if the wine fans ever felt they were being upstaged by the rock-star beer brewer. "The beer press was very receptive to the idea of the book," Calagione says. "The wine side was fairly quiet. But I think it moves all the beverage categories forward; and in fact, beer and wine have a lot in common."

At the beer dinner, Calagione played to his cult status, taking time to visit every table and chat with the guests. He even entertained the crowd with some rhymes from his hip-hop group, the Pain Relievas, which he claimed is the "finest beer-geek hip-hop band of our generation," and, admittedly, "the only beer-geek hip-hop band of our generation." He had this to say to West Coast brewers bragging that they were the kings of hoppy beer:

You West Coast brewers, your shit is played,

I get more IBUs from a batch of lemonade.

You sprinkle out the hops like it was paraphernalia,

East Coast got balls, you got female genitalia.


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