Never meet your hero

There’s all sorts of cod advice on the internet about why you shouldn’t meet your heroes. A motif of this revolves around the fact that your hero isn’t in fact some 2 x 6-packed Hercules-cum-Adonis with the intellect of Stephen Hawking and simply oozing pheromone-rich, indescribably alluring charisma out of every unblemished pore. In fact, they are likely to be quite human. One eye slightly higher than the other, one ear slightly lower than the other, a troublesome, unspoken wart, hairy nostrils and perhaps a small holiday tattoo to unrequited love on the nape of the neck, just behind their ear.

Generally, I attempt to avoid hero-worship if I can help it and possessed of sufficient rationality, this doesn’t tend to be a problem. Where I do have some hero-magnetism is with underdogs: Damon Hill was one, but he also had a very stylish racing helmet, which counted double. Irreverence and authenticity helps too: my daughters and I met Bradley Wiggins in a queue at Manchester Airport once; he was perfectly down to earth and back then, not as famous as he is now (this being a few months before winning the Tour de France and Olympic Gold); but, although we have an ‘in’ joke when we see him on TV, we also recognise he’s just a family guy who is particularly good at his job and also particularly apt at speaking his mind. But heroes? Real heroes – I could count them on the fingers of one hand with a digit to spare.

Plucky underdogs, irreverent and authentic. Well, there’s a better definition of craft beer than I’ve seen hithero. And musing on this, I realised that I do have more heroes than I admit to myself. They’re just not human; they’re of the malty and hoppy variety. Ultimately, there is a whole generation of brewers who, in my lifetime, have saved beer from a uniformly bland future. Many of them are U.S. stories, and as such, brands that are hard to find on our shores. I found two on my recent trip Stateside: beers which, to a craft beer enthusiast, and possibly those living near a good retailer (probably in London) will be familiar: Dogfish Head 60 Minute and 90 Minute IPA.

The story of the company’s genesis is written up in a part-autobiographical / part-business text by its founder, Sam Calgione, an affable and slightly languid New Englander. He’s also familiar to many more (albeit also on the subject of beer) through the company being featured on Brew Masters on Discovery Channel (2010). Sam, like many of company founders like to tell the tale of his distinctive ales as widely as he can and it’s worth tuning into some of his TEDx lectures, particularly on those that tell of the story of some of his beers and how they came about.  At the core of Dogfish Head beers is a central thought: ‘off-centric ales for off-centric people’.   There, in the credo of the brewery, is a manifesto that says: ‘we will play round the edges’. It says, ‘You don’t consider yourself mainstream; you’re an individual. So are we’. And that becomes the product brief: Dogfish Head beers must be different – different, not just from Big Beer, but different too from many other craft brewers. Hence: Midas Touch Golden Elixir, based on a recipe dating back before, well, before Last of The Summer Wine for sure (actually it purports to be inspired from a recipe from the 8th century BC and contains Yellow Muscat Grapes – Compo would be proud). Or Pangaea, which is brewed with an ingredient from each continent, including some Antarctic water. Or Noble Rot, a Saison, brewed with malt and grapes, the grapes being infected with botrytis for that Chateau d’Yquiem touch.

Now, if you’re a Big Beer player, you must compete in pale lager: Carling; Carlsberg, Heineken, Moretti, Jupiler, Asahi, Tsingtao, Bintang, Castlemaine, Molson, Corona, Quilmes. Similar build, similar personality, different clothes. If you’re a craft brewer, then you need to compete in IPA – well, pale and India Pale certainly. This was the challenge faced by Sam Calagione and the Dogfish Head team in the early 2000s. They’d crunched the numbers. They were pondering how to ensure the brewery remained full, and full with beers true to them. They needed an IPA. But how to do IPA the Dogfish way, the off-centred way?

Heinz WolffThe answer ultimately, was to deploy an elaborate, Great Egg Race contraption to make small additions of hops every minute for the length of the boil: for 60 minutes, 90 minutes, 120 minutes; in my head I have my old chemistry classes in mind; vertical pipettes mounted above a steaming copper; Professor Heinz Wolff gently adding ze hops all ze time. Vonderfol! Don’t spoil it for me.

But anyway, there they were, two of them at least, on the shelf in Publix in uptown Sarasota. Six packs and singles of 60 and 90 Minute IPA. I’ll be honest, time actually did slow; I handled them cautiously, reverently, gently. I think I might have stroked one, and purred, ever so quietly. And then this strange thing happened: I got them back to the condo, chilled them down, but I couldn’t open them. I mean, what if, just supposing, it turns out to be, well, just a quite ordinary, no doubt tasty, but still, quite ordinary IPA. What if, all the hyperbole was just that? Mere hot air, evaporating away like the steam from a copper boil?

IMG_3553A few days went by and I drank down the stocks of my other beers: some damn fine ones as it turned out. The issue had to be confronted: I thought slow and took out the Dogfish Head bottles. I polished a particularly bulbous ‘70s wine glass, not ideal, but it would have to do. I prepared the seat and low table on the balcony overlooking the sea. I got my book. And I cracked open the crown. The 60 minuter first. As you’d expect from a beer so doped on humolone, the head was effusive, abundant. It was tight too and Honiton lace, you know, the sort that old doilies were made from, was left down the inside of the glass as I drank. The colour was mid gold; but how to describe the aroma? Volatile, fresh, profuse, intense: it raced out of the bottle-neck even before pouring. It was spicy and resinous and quite three dimensional – the dimensions of taste that is. The first taste was zippy and fresh; here now a grassy hoppiness. Across the mid palate was the spiciness and the lingering finish was bitter, quenching, not astringent but actually smooth and rounded. Maybe this is my palate, but I’ve found the same phenomena with other highly hopped beers (Stone Ruination for one): an expectation of being undrinkable (unfinishable is more accurate perhaps) but the opposite is true – providing there is a strong malt backbone, the beers are highly drinkable and surprisingly balanced. Yet for all that, at 60 IBU and 6%, it’s still a half brick in a hop pillow.

IMG_3580The 90 Minute IPA has a pleasing mathematical symmetry too: a 90 Minute hop addition, 9% ABV, 90 IBU. The longer boil also brings deeper colour: here a deep copper brown (quite Best Bitter to be honest), with a just off-white head that again was full and billowing. To drink, the carbonation was surprisingly gentle, natural and sustained. A superbly balanced strong beer that belies its strength, or perhaps, re-writes our perception of what strong beer should be. Whilst 9% Carlsberg Special Brew is cloying and shakes you aggressively by the throat, here there is a profound maltiness, and a pine resin follow through. My note at the time read: “Dangerously drinkable. I understand it’s reputation. Boof!” Clearly, the 9% was already kicking in.

Yet there was a slightly bitter edge as a Brit. Reflecting, I found myself thinking: where are our pale ales of this inventiveness, this majesty? Why isn’t a beer like this being pioneered in Burton, or London. Oh sure, there are some great beers coming through. But a hero? A beer that makes you go, ‘Boof!’? Not just yet. Not just yet.

© David Preston, http://www.beertintedspectacles.com, June 2015

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