Lookie here! It's my latest Gourmet column, about insanely flavored beers. Read it here, or look below.
On an average day, Manhattan’s Blind Tiger Ale House pours 30-plus unique beers on tap, from dark stouts to pumpkin ales. But few are as weirdly wonderful as the Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA—a highly hoppy, malty ale—that will soon be infused with lemongrass, tropical fruits, pine and spruce tips, fresh hops, or leafy mint and bourbon ball candy. “It’s all thanks to Randall the Enamel Animal,” says Blind Tiger owner Alan Jestice.
The Randall, Jestice explains, is essentially a sealed, cylindrical water filter filled with loosely packed flavoring agents and connected to a keg line. When beer is drawn, it passes through the Randall tube, picking up aromatic oils and flavors. The secret is using snifter-worthy 90 Minute IPA, which contains 9 percent alcohol by volume. The alcohol strips off flavorful oils, essentially instant-infusing the beer. (The “Enamel Animal” sobriquet references the fact that extremely hoppy, resinous beer often feels like it’s dissolving teeth enamel—the pungent resins can taste gritty.)
Dogfish Head’s gonzo device is a technological twist on brewers’ centuries-old tweaks: Porters and stouts have long been seasoned in oak barrels, while Hefeweizens and Belgian ales are often re-fermented with additional doses of yeast. These flavors can be subtle and nuanced, but not so the tastes of bourbon ball candy and fresh mint. They’ve transformed the IPA into an ersatz mint julep. Several mint leaves tossed on top provide an herbaceous nose, but the flavored beer is almost oppressively sweet.
“The beer washes the sugar directly into the beer,” Jestice explains.
It’s difficult to drink a full glass, so I switch to the lemongrass-infused Simple Thai. The citrusy herb counteracts the hops, resulting in an almost vegetal quaff. Sometimes the sum is not greater than the parts. Same goes for the Summer Fresco. The dried-melon-and-pineapple barely magnify the IPA’s fruity essence.
More successful is the Northern Winter. Pine and spruce tips imbue the beer with a Christmas-tree nose, and an evergreen-fresh flavor that’s a perfect accompaniment to the already piney IPA. However, my favorite is the Hoppy Giant. A strong dose of whole-leaf hops gives the IPA heady aromatics, resulting in a smooth, delicious flavor. It’s the difference between eating a beefsteak tomato and a farmers market heirloom.
“That’s what’s great about a Randall,” Jestice says. “It’s not meant to transform a beer. It amplifies beer’s natural flavors.”
When microbrewer Dave Holmes tried recently to place an order for hops, the aromatic flowers that flavor beer, the response was heartbreaking.
“My supplier laughed at me,” says Holmes, owner of Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Warbird Brewing Company. “I said, ‘I’m hearing rumors about not getting hops. She said, ‘That’s right, you’re not getting hops.’ We didn’t know whether we’d be able to stay in business.”
Basically, beer contains four simple ingredients: water, barley malt, yeast, and hops. No hops? No beer (at least, no beer as most of us, know it). The shortage was caused by a perfect storm of misfortune: A fire destroyed a Yakima, Washington, hops warehouse, while drought and disease decimated crops in the U.S. and Europe.
Mega-brewers like Anheuser-Busch, who hold long-term hops contracts with farmers, are largely unaffected. Small microbreweries like Warbird, however, don’t typically hold contracts. They purchase the flowers as needed in the spot market (a commodities market in which goods are bought and sold for cash), meaning that microbreweries are vulnerable to fluctuations in availability.
“Hops that once cost $3 a pound now cost $30, but this isn’t about cost,” says Jim Koch, owner of Boston Beer Company, the makers of Samuel Adams. Since Koch’s contracts with farmers guaranteed his supply of hops, he helped alleviate short-term shortages by setting aside 20,000 pounds of aromatic East Kent Goldings and Tettnang Tettnanger hops for microbrewers to purchase at cost—$5.72 and $5.42 a pound respectively (plus $.75 a pound for shipping).
“I saw craft brewers who couldn’t make their beers, or couldn’t make the beers they wanted to. We felt like we needed to share,” says Koch, recalling his company’s beginnings as a microbrewery. The hops were raffled off in a lottery, with breweries allotted up to 528 pounds of hops apiece, in 88-pound batches. “We asked brewers not to request hops because they’d save money; buy them because you need them.” More than 350 microbreweries applied—nearly one-fourth of all microbreweries in the U.S. “I knew there would be demand, but I didn’t realize that level of need,” Koch says.
Thanks to Koch’s largesse, and a lucky draw, Holmes can continue crafting his popular Shanty Irish ale and shelve last-resort tactics: “We started researching how ancient Sumerians brewed beer with bark,” Holmes says, laughing.
To avoid future shortages, farmers are planting new hops vines (which take three years to mature). For the immediate future, brewers are crossing their fingers for a bountiful harvest. “I hope the hops on the vine are enjoying a very happy growing season,” Koch says.
Vinnie Cilurzo, the brains behind Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California, fashions the maniacally hoppy Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, the gold standards for double and triple India pale ales. But they’re as conventional as Coors when compared to Cilurzo’s pet creations, which are so dangerous they’re brewed in isolation behind closed doors.
“I like making beers with bugs and critters,” says Cilurzo of his sour, Belgian-style ales fermented with Brettanomyces, a particularly potent type of yeast that he has experimented with since 1999.
Brettanomyces (often informally called “Brett”) imbues beers, such as barrel-aged Belgian lambics, with mild sourness and an earthy, barnyard funkiness (often considered defects in wine) that’s as foreign as your first bite of gamy goat or stinky durian. “We’re making creative beers with lots of personality,” Cilurzo says. His innovations include the woody Temptation, made by adding Brett (in addition to Lactobacillus and Pediococcus bacteria) to the raw wort and aging in oak Chardonnay barrels; and the sour-cherry Supplication, made by adding Brett and aging in Pinot Noir barrels. For the tart, 100 percent spontaneously fermented Beatification, Cilurzo doesn’t add yeast at all—it is simply floating in the air (the result of brewing Brett beers for a number of years in close quarters), and it colonizes the wort on its own.
Unlike normal beers, which ferment predictably with the addition of brewers’ yeast and can be drinkable in as few as two or three weeks, Brett beers “aren’t even tasted until they’re six months old,” Cilurzo says, adding that they are often aged for more than a year. “The beers tell us when they’re ready, and they work at their own pace. You can’t think like a brewer; you have to think like a winemaker.”
This challenge has attracted brewers at Allagash, New Belgium, and Jolly Pumpkin, which exclusively manufactures unfiltered, barrel-cured wild-yeast beers. Still, these sour ales remain a niche within the microbrew niche for several important reasons. “The wooden barrels require tons of space, and there’s a huge risk involved if the wild yeasts infiltrated other beers,” Cilurzo says.
“If Brett got into our regular production beer while it’s fermenting, it could be devastating,” says Gary Fish, owner of Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, explaining that the invasive spores would impart unwanted sour flavors. So “we were absolutely fastidious with our cleaning process” when creating a sour brown ale that’s aging in barrels containing mashed cherries (the beer, which will be called The Dissident, is tentatively scheduled for a September release).
Cilurzo takes safety one step farther by embracing kosher-style cleanliness methods: duplicates of every brewing gasket and tube—one for Bretts, one for normal beers. A costly headache? Not to Cilurzo. His complex beers have proven so popular that he’s ramping up production sixfold at his new brewery, slated to open this spring, with more than 400 oak barrels for aging.
“We make funky, challenging beers we like to drink,” Cilurzo explains, “and thank God, there are people out there who like them.”
In case any of y'all were curious, I pen a biweekly beer column for Gourmet magazine's online component, Gourmet.com. This is my latest column, about the battles our dear beer-drinking brothers in Alabama are waging to be able to sip a pint o' delicious, high-alcohol nectar. Drink it up!
The Battle for Craft Beer Long deprived of world-class brews, Alabamans are fighting back.
Stuart Carter is crazy for craft beer. The Alabama computer-service technician loves refined Belgian Trappist ales, Great Divide’s rich, dark, decadent Yeti Imperial Stout, and Dogfish Head’s strong, sweet Midas Touch Golden Elixir. There’s only problem: In Alabama, drinking these beers constitutes a criminal act.
“You can buy fortified wine or pure-grain alcohol, but you cannot buy Atlanta’s SweetWater IPA because, gosh, it contains 6.7 percent alcohol,” says Carter, president of Free the Hops, a grassroots beer-advocacy group fighting to reform the state’s many antediluvian laws.
Home-brewing is currently illegal in Alabama. A brewpub can only operate in a historical building situated in a county that sold alcohol pre-Prohibition. You can be fined for bringing two cases of beer into dry counties. And most problematic for craft-suds fiends like Carter, Alabama (along with Mississippi and West Virginia) prohibits the sale of beer that’s higher than 6 percent alcohol by volume (5 percent alcohol by weight)—just a bit stronger than a Budweiser (which has 5 percent ABV).
“Most craft breweries’ beers start at 6.5 percent alcohol by volume,” Carter says, adding that, out of Beeradvocate.com’s top 100 beers in the world, just four are sold in Alabama (though the number varies because the list changes weekly). “We need to bring Alabama into the twenty-first century.”
To remove the restrictions, the three-year-old organization introduced bills into Alabama’s legislature. They failed in 2006. And 2007. Carter partly blames Birmingham Budweiser, which distributes Anheuser-Busch products, for the bills’ defeat; he claims that Birmingham Budweiser vice president Pat Lynch has lobbied against changing legislation (Gourmet was unable to verify the claim).
In January, Free the Hops escalated its tactics by calling for a ban on products handled by Lynch’s distributorship. Lynch did not respond to calls for comment, but on February 13, Free the Hops revealed that the Alabama Wholesale Beer Association (AWBA) had helped broker a compromise between Lynch and Carter’s organization. The beer concerns are hammering out a bill that would increase the allowable ABV from 6 percent to 13.9 percent—welcoming most craft brews to Alabama.
“Passing this should be a no-brainer,” Carter says optimistically about the bill, which should go before the legislature later this year. “Wholesalers will make scads of money, more tax money will go back to the state—and we’ll finally be able to drink good beer.”