Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Tour

DFH's $30,001 Steampunk Treehouse
Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware. My wife and I, along with our dog, made the trip down to the Delaware beaches. Incidentally, if you're looking for a good place to stay in Lewes, we highly recommend the Lazy L at Willow Creek, a very dog-friendly bed & breakfast.

Before I talk about my experience at the Dogfish Head (DFH) facility, I should tell you about my preconceived notions. I have always viewed DFH as a tree-hugging, peace-loving, far-out-there kind of brewery. Their slogan proves my prejudicial bent: "Off-centered stuff for off-centered people". Also, the names of some of their beers are pretty inaccessible: Raison D'Etre, Palo Santo Marron, Burton Baton, Festina Peche, Chateau Jiahu, Namaste, Sah'Tea, and Ta Henket, to name a few. I am not against things that are "different", and I certainly don't mind creativity. Yet, DFH just didn't seem to be up my alley.

Of course, none of this would keep me from taking a brewery tour! I always find it fascinating to hear about the history of a brewery, see the operations, watch the bottles go clinking down the line, and of course, sample the wares. And I have to admit that by the end of the tour, I realized that DFH was not as inaccessible as I had once thought.

Sam Calagione: the man, the myth, the legend. (Nice looking beer!)
Sam Calagione, founder and President of DFH, was an English major (like yours truly!) and, according to the DFH website, is the "brainchild behind all the wacky things that happen at Dogfish Head" [1]. The tour guide said that Sam decided to open DFH in Delaware because 1) his wife grew up there and 2) at that time, there were no DE breweries [2], so he could help to shape the beer laws. Sam must have done a pretty good job shaping the DE beer laws, because I'm happy to report that I was able to pick up some beers tax-free and in stores that sell wine, spirits, and beer all in one place [3].

Some of the original beer-making equipment
One of the stories our tour guide told us was about payday beer. As with all production ventures, things inevitably go wrong sometimes. So there are some batches of beer that just aren't, let's say, optimal. But it's still beer, so why let it go to waste, right? That's what the DFH employees thought too! So they would go in search of the "bad" beer and take it home with them. This became such a popular pastime that Sam implemented the payday beer. Now, employees are afforded the opportunity to specify which one of a few beers they would like to have, and it is delivered to them along with their paycheck every other week. I can imagine that DFH employees have a lot of friends wanting to visit every couple of weeks. Also, just think of how many disgruntled employees would change their tune if they got payday beer (hint to corporate America).

Another story that our tour guide told us was about the treehouse in front of the DFH brewery (pictured at the top). The Steampunk Treehouse was first exhibited at the 2007 Burning Man festival in Nevada and now permanently resides at DFH. (Read more here.) Sam bought it at an auction for $1, but it cost another $30,000 to ship and install. So the deal was a bit more than Sam "bargained" for (insert canned laughter here), but it yields a sweet first impression for DFH visitors.

"Where's the tap on this thing?"
The namesake of one of DFH's brews, Palo Santo, is actually a type of wood that only grows in one place on earth: Paraguay. Palo Santo, meaning holy wood, is used to condition DFH's brown ale and gives it a caramel vanilla flavor (mmm!). Interestingly, this wood is so tough that even a bullet doesn't damage it. As a matter of fact, the large tank pictured above is made of Palo Santo wood, and the craftsmen went through  seventeen diamond-tipped saw blades to make it. I cannot imagine enduring such a painstaking effort. But at least the beer is good!

A note about the 60 Minute, 90 Minute, and 120 Minute IPAs that DFH makes. Hops are added for flavor and are typically introduced to the beer at the beginning and end of the brewing process. Our tour guide told us that, one day, Sam was watching a cooking show. The chef was adding pepper to the recipe all throughout the cooking process because adding it all at one time would ruin the flavor. This "aha!" moment led to Sam's "Sir Hops Alot" contraption. Basically, he rigged a vibrating base to shake hops down into a bucket with holes in it. As "Sir Hops Alot" continued its vibrating endeavors, the hops would find their way out of the bucket and into the brew. (They have since refined the machinery, but this basic innovation got the job done!) This led to a continuous hopping process, thereby exponentially increasing the robust flavor of the beer. The 90 Minute, for example, is continuously hopped in this manner for 90 minutes. Genius!

From DFH's Rehobeth brewpub
And now for the sampling! During the tour, DFH was licensed to provide 12 ounces of beer to visitors for free. DFH decided to split that 12 ounces into four 3-ounce samples. I was privileged to try Festina Peche (peach-flavored, not a favorite of mine), 60 Minute IPA (an excellent IPA), Burton Baton (wow! amazing imperial IPA!), and Palo Santo Marron (a wonderful brown ale). Later on, we also visited DFH's brewpub in Rehobeth. There I sampled five brews:
  1. Sah' Tea -- Wow, spices galore! It's like Chai tea in a beer. I think you would have to be in the right mindset to drink this and maybe only one at a time. Very unique. I'm impressed.
  2. Indian Brown Ale -- Hits the style on the nose! Has a little extra spice, hence the "Indian", I suppose.
  3. Aprihop -- Lighter than I expected. A good apricot flavor. Easy to drink and refreshing at the same time.
  4. Midas Touch -- From the taste, this is what I would call a "normal" beer. However, it is slightly differentiated by the higher alcohol content (9%) and extra "bite".
  5. Tweason'ale -- Pretty good. I couldn't identify what "extra" flavor I was picking up on in this beer, but after reading  the notes on BeerAdvocate, I believe it was the sorghum and molasses.
I walked away with a four-pack of Burton Baton, one 750-ml bottle of Urkontinent (the DFH-Google(!) collaboration brew), and two pints of the extremely-hard-to-come-by 120 Minute (I paid $9 per pint, but it's not unheard of to pay $13 or more for a pint!).

If you are planning on taking a DFH brewery tour (and you should), make sure you reserve a spot in advance. You can do so on DFH's website.

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Footnotes:
[1] One of Sam's "wacky" ideas was to brew a naturally-green beer using Spirulina (seaweed) in an attempt to thwart the obviously-evil plot to cheapen his beer by using green dye for St. Paddy's day. (Read DFH's take on it, and check it out on BeerAdvocate.)
[2] According to BeerMe.com, there are still only eleven DE breweries currently in operation with one in the works.
[3] Don't even get me started on the odd setup we have in Pennsylvania! But please feel free to visit Lew Bryson's blog "Why the PLCB should be abolished" at http://noplcb.blogspot.com/.