Before a whisky becomes a spirit.
Everybody loves a good origin story, and when it comes to distilled spirits, whisky's origins are worthy of the most thoroughly engrossing documentary (speaking of which, where is one? the movie Angel's Share comes closest, and that's just sad). I'm not even talking about the remarkable distillation process or the expertise (not to mention supply chains) involved in maturation. I'm talking about where your alcohol gets its start - as a beer.
This post is all about "beer". You see, all whisky starts its life as beer, even the non-barley kind. Saccharomyces cerevisiae may be a remarkably efficient little organism, but it doesn't generate ABV anywhere near the concentration you'll find inside a bottle of whisky. We have distillation to thank for this concentration (and civilization owes much to the scientific leaps that distillation engendered) but whisky has beer - and yeast even more specifically - to thank for even existing at all. There's so much more to the story, which you can read about in books like The Drunken Botanist and Proof: The Science of Booze, but it's the freakin' weekend. I believe this calls for some post-work week OJT. Today I'm going to introduce you to some of the most astonishing beers I've sampled over the last few months.
I realize that there is incredible risk involved in putting any beer recommendation list on the internet. Partly this comes from list exhaustion (thanks BuzzFeed), and the overwhelming amount of content that is already out there. Partly it's because many of you are going to question why such-and-such favorite beer of yours didn't make this list. Well, that's because it's my list. This is where my journey has taken me. Feel free to chime in on the comments with recommendations or criticisms - seriously! I keep an open mind, and I happen to know that many of you have impeccable taste in this arena.
I began my knowledge of beer with a 6-pack of Coors Light (ugh) on my 21st birthday. Summertimes mowing lawns during college taught me to enjoy shoving lime slices into my Negro Modelo. Evenings hugging warm girlfriends by the pool taught me to enjoy Shock Tops and Blue Moons. Seafood taught me to appreciate the pale ales and I seriously chased the hop train for a while (it's not quite "Puff the Magic Dragon", but it's close). Then I fell in love with Aventinus and doppelbocks over many trips to the Bier Garden in Norfolk. There wasn't much time for drinking during my deployments, but coming home always introduced me to new things (another trip to Bier Garden and hello Delerium Tremens!). My point is, I've been drinking beer longest of all my drinks, and all these fizzy lifting drinks have taught me a thing or two about beer culture:
With that said, these are the beers that stood out. I dare say that all of them are amazing in their own right, and I'll be happy to add to the list in the months to come (like maybe my next home batch!).
Disclaimers: If you're the paleo type and this grain thing just doesn't suit your style, I actually agree but c'mon. Science. If you're more of a "I'll stick to more noble drinks like whisky and wine, TYVM" type person, well dude, some of these have ABV higher than your wine and more complexity to boot. Give love a chance. For the masochists who still resist, why would you deny yourself the pleasure? For the faint-hearted, take courage (beer helps with that). For the uninterested ("Isn't this a distilled spirits blog?"), SEE TITLE. If you're an "I only drink DARK beer" person... well, I "only make love with the light's off" [Ed.: not true], [Ed. Wife: why do they even?!] Also, I tried really hard not to make this just a Dogfish Head list.
A lot of craft beer isn't really "craft" (there's a big discussion about this in both the beer and whisky industries), and a lot of craft beer is pretty terrible or mediocre. Competition literally benefits the consumer in this case, and both craft and ... bigger-than-craft? brewers have laid down some serious challenges. Exciting things are happening. You'll notice many of these beers are barrel-aged. That's not just a paean to the whisky audience out there, it's damn good!
Ommegang Hennepin: I've really taken to saisons lately. You might even say that perhaps I don't prefer a color of beer so much as I prefer a region (French-Belgian in style, not necessarily source). Saison (French for "season") is always a pretty little blond ale that gets a lot of spicy, fruity, green farmhouse character. You can practically taste the hay and the laughter on this. It is the Star Trek: Insurrection of beers: overlooked, unappreciated, but full of beauty and lots of happy space hippies running around blissful Portlandish home gardens. By the name I think they intend that you "only drink this in the summer" since that's when the climate best suits its palate (our next beer, another saison, is only released seasonally). But hey, if you want to be reminded of happy days...
Long Trail (Brush and Barrel Series) Saison: If Hennepin is brewed in the French farmer's style, then Long Trail's Saison is the farmer's daughter: mature, self-assured, kind of sexy, but doesn't really care what you think about that because she's got too much work to do. I find this a bit spicier and earthier than Ommegang's offering, but they're definitely one good lookin' family. This beer is as classy as champagne with a more grounded, keep-it-real character.
Goose Island - The Ogden: There's a local brewhouse in Fall River that has this beer on tap. On tap! At 9%, this Belgian tripel falls right into my ABV sweet spot (I generally prefer a range of about 7-12%) and sits right inside the flavor profile of other great Belgians, including my notable first love, Delirium Tremens. These tripels tend to be magnificently fruit-forward with a powerful, malty finish. I can't get enough.
Hof Ten Dormaal - Barrel Aged in Octomore 2014: This is a blonde ale aged in barrels of Octomore, the world's peatiest whisky (one of my absolute favorite Scotches of all time). There's a special story that comes with it. It was a completely random find. I had some serious doubts. I put my doubts to rest and poured it for my brother at his wedding. I got fined $100 by the wedding venue because I Brought My Own Bottle and violated some stupid liquor license thingy. Worth. Every. Penny.
Dogfish Head - Midas Touch: I first heard about this collaboration between Dogfish Head and biomolecular archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern in Proof: The Science of Booze. When I saw it in the local store and read the description, I had to go for it. You're not going to believe me when I tell you. Supposedly derived from an ancient Egyptian recipe, this ale is made from barley, honey, white muscat grapes, and saffron. BOOM! Beer claims another hipster juice cleanser.
Dogfish Head - 120 Minute IPA: For the home brewers here, you'll know that 120 minutes refers to the amount of time the wort is hopped. For the non-brewers, 120 minutes is a long time, maybe even a bit overkill. I tend to believe that many craft brewers use hops to mask the flavor of bad beer, just as many distillers cover for bad/immature whisky with smoke and peat. In many ways, the rush to IBU's in beer resembles the peat-freak fanaticism that holds back many Scotch enthusiasts. Needless to say, I was skeptical of the wisdom of Dogfish Head's approach here.
I went searching for this beer on the advice of a friend, and I was afraid it would turn out to be a bitter, over-hopped mess. I was wrong. This is the velvet cake of IPA's. The hops are so sweetly integrated with the malt that it was hard to put the bottle down. I have to find more, but I hope all that humulus lupulus doesn't affect my next urinalysis.
Gouden Carolus Van de Keizer Blauw: You want to look for the blue label here (which is only brewed seasonally, though largely available year round). This is a dark Belgian ale very much in the style of Chimay's blue label, although I tend to think the Van de Keizer cuvee has better overall structure and integration. It's essentially a barleywine, super sweet with a beautiful ABV. Best in its class.
Ommegang - Three Philosophers: Not to be outdone by the Belgians, Ommegang (based in Cooperstown, NY) went and whipped up a Belgian quad blended with a very small percentage of Liefmans Kriek (cherry ale). The cherry is hardly noticeable here. I like to keep a bottle around as proof that Americans can do some of my favorite beers just as well as - if not better than - the old Europe.
Widmer Brothers - Kill Devil '13: Brown ales are often undeservedly overlooked and unappreciated in an era when everything is supposed to be crisp and bitter and bright. This particular version is barrel-aged in Puerto Rican rum barrels, which give it a distinctive ABV bite and sugary sweetness. It gets mixed reviews online, but what do the hipsters know? It's not like they know good rum either.
Dogfish Head - Raisin D'extra: This is a magnificent brown ale brewed with like a bajillion raisins and some beet sugar (boosting the ABV to 15-18%!). Now I've got your interest! You just have to try it.
New Holland - Dragon's Milk: We're getting into my winter favorites. Of all beer styles that enjoy a good bourbon barrel, I think stouts benefit from their conditioning the most. Something about those barrels dials the caramel, toffee, and butterscotch notes to 11. Sometimes these beers tend to be a bit "sticky". They leave residue at the bottom of a glass, and they generally have a low head of foam that purists frown at. I don't care. There's only one other stout out there that I would put above this Michigan beer, and that is...
Goose Island - Bourbon County Stout 2014: King of beers. You know how I told you that one local brewhouse has Goose Island's Ogden on tap? Well, they have the 2012, 2013, and 2014 vintages of this stout on tap as well! I am in heaven. It's the hero Gotham deserves, just... not one I can drink all the time. It may be trying too hard sometimes.
Why do we drink?
That is such a silly sounding question. Has a non-drinker ever asked you that? Just what is a "non-drinker" anyway? Drinking, as Maestro Webster would define it, is vital to human survival. So when did the act of swallowing life-giving, fresh, cool water become eponymous with quaffing an ethanol-laced liquid? More importantly, why has this happened? Anglophiles have words like imbibe which have strong, alcohol-specific associations, but drinking... in America... what a thing. Nobody says this word in a sentence like that when they talk about Mountain Dew: "Woohoo, let's party like the Beach Boys! Root beer's on the house!" Furthermore, I've never seen soda-pop "breweries" draw in fans waiting for the latest bourbon barrel release, because of course that's ridiculous. You owe it to yourself to ask why.
The world is full of people who take themselves very seriously. Odds are that you hang around one or two of them on a daily basis, and you can't help but notice how they often set the mood for the group. You leave work or school and you're like, "I seriously need to chill right now. I have wiled away the hours contemplating the complex and fundamental questions about the universe, and now I shall let my proverbial hair down [because if you spend very much of your time in places like this, you probably don't have much hair left]." So what do you do? You do what homo sapiens across generations and millennia have done: you come home and crack open a "cold one" (the one makes it sound more mysterious; you have to guess what the one is). People often remark to me - and after my travels I have to agree - that Americans don't know how to drink. Well, we know how, we just seem to have different goals. We get all silly about it. We start adding razzmatazz flavors to our neutral grain spirits, and we take these amazing wines and toss a bunch of fruit juice and sprite in them. We long for the effect, but we don't give a flying frack about the journey - some of us anyway. Then the yin to the yang, badda bing, badda bang, and we have a whole subset of the population that lives to judge the ones who are drinking stoopid. Because why? You don't even know. I bet you never even knew that stuff that we knew.
I can be a pretty snooty, high-minded person about my alcohol sometimes. It's not a mystery or even an apology; just read through this blog and you'll see. Maybe you even came here originally because you share my sensibilities and are looking for validation (you are not a Philistine). But even a scrooge as cold-hearted and critical as me can tell when I start to take a subject like alcohol too seriously. What, do you think I really worship this stuff? I can't even take any credit for it! Just one, single-celled organism is responsible for providing the human race with the most marvelous experience of all that we drink, and you think I'm really qualified to be the arbiter on what is right and wrong about the subject? Preposterous. I don't know where you come from, but I know that we can find some really fun stuff to drink together. Maybe I'll even write about it.
A toast! new friend. To second guessing!
To all who ever reached for their "default" sipper -
- Their standard bottle or brew -
And spied the bottle next to it and said, "Why not?"
Enjoy the roads untraveled.
To the home brewer or vintner,
Who starts with a kit and gets hooked,
And while following the recipe starts eyeing the spice cupboard.
Embrace the spirit of discovery.
To the ones who imbibe alone,
And then one day their spouse asks if they can stop by the liquor store,
And although they want to grab that noble, rare single malt,
They reach for that American Honey
In hopes of winning a convert.
Because don't you like honey?
May you relax and find love in letting go.
To the ones who look at that vodka in the cabinet,
Then look at that bag of peppers in the refrigerator,
Or perhaps they're eyeing their loose leaf tea,
And say, "What if..."
Unleash your inner mad scientist.
To the ones who are mixing up their whisky sour,
And - out of lemons - settle for grapefuit,
Who drink it anyway,
And give it a name.
The world is your grapefruit.
To the second guessers,
To the late impressors,
Kanpai! Salud! L'Chaim! Cheers!