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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dogfish Redux

Stan Hieronymus praises and castigates me for my critique of Burkhard Bilger's New Yorker piece below. He gives me props for pointing out the weakness of drawing conclusions about a beer movement when you only consult a single, East Coast brewer (Stan's in New Mexico). But he thinks I'm off-point on Sam Calagione:
In the second case he totally overlooks innovative and terrifically drinkable beers. Later he implies that Dogfish Head’s brewing style is less than disciplined — despite the fact the story documents Dogfish Head’s growing level of sophistication when it comes to quality control.
I didn't really want this to be a critique of Dogfish Head, a brewery about which I know little. I've had four or five of their beers, and every time, I find the flavors muddy and indistinct. Given the large, extremely enthusiastic following, I always expect more. My real critique of the brewery is Sam's apparent lack of disciple, all of which I take directly from the article. Bilger consistently portrays him as a guy disinterested in learning theory or craft, but delighted by experimentation. The article begins with a story about how he recently ordered $150,000 of tropical wood to build a cask based on the advice of a customer. If this isn't seat-of-your-pants brewing, what is? Calagione's own head brewer is the one who characterizes him as undisciplined, not me.

But the other thing here is that Dogfish Head seems to be credited with innovating things that have been around a long time. Their "continuous hopping" schtick is an example. Bilger describes how Calagione learned on a cooking show that some dishes are infused with spices while they simmer. So he invented a machine that sprinkles hops into his beer throughout the boil. But this is hardly innovation. For centuries brewers have hopped their beer throughout the boil. They may not have jury-rigged a machine to sprinkle them like rain, but then again, they weren't so inexperienced that they had to get the idea from a cooking show, either.

The point is, there are a lot of breweries in this country doing exceptional brewing, and many that have been doing it for decades. Innovation may mark Dogfish Head's approach, but Dogfish Head isn't, in my view, the brewery that embodies the spirit of innovation in American brewing. And I don't think Burkhard Bilger realizes that.

[Update: Stan also points to a discussion thread on Beer Advocate about the article. Bilger, Calagione, and Garrett Oliver (quoted in the article) all join in. You have to sign up to read it, but it's interesting--and Beer Advocate's a pretty good site.]

3 comments:

Stan Hieronymus said...

Jeff - I have already apologized at my blog for turning "disciplined" into "quality control." I should have stuck with that word to make the point Dogfish has always been focused on a) innovation for the sake of flavor not making "pet rocks" and now b) the integrity of the beer in the bottle.

The story does not necessarily do the best job of explaining that. Have you ever seen the video about the making of Palo Santo Marron?

Anonymous said...

I think you have made a very good point, and I couldn't agree with you more.

Extra Beer said...

it's good to see that beer etiquette and beer culture continue to exist.

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