If I wanted water, I would have asked for water.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wrong.

In a now somewhat-outdated New Yorker article I read on the plane home from Boston last night, Burkhard Bilger uses the patented New Yorker template--1) interesting character who allows entry into a world unknown to the general reader, 2) history of the world, 3) current activities of the individual, 4) broader discussion of the world, and 5) final anecdotal outro--to discuss “extreme beer.” But really, he’s just talking craft beer. And to the great detriment of the piece, he uses Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head as his interesting character. The beer world, of course, is inhabited almost exclusively by interesting characters, so Bilger had his choice. But now that I’ve read the article, I see that he’s done a great injustice to the world of craft brewing. Take, as one of several examples, the following passage, noting, if you will, the date in the first paragraph:

The turning point came in 1999, when Calagione was watching a cooking show on television. The chef, who was making a soup, was saying that several grindings of pepper, added to the pot at different points, would give the dish more flavor than a single dose added at the beginning.... Later, when his kettle was boiling, he put hops in the bucket, perched his contraption at a slant above the kettle, and set the game vibrating. Soon, a steady stream of hops was falling through the bucket onto the playing field and sliding into the kettle.

The beer born of that experiment, known as 60 Minute I.P.A., is still Calagione’s biggest seller. He calls it a beer geek’s idea of a “session beer”—mild enough to be consumed in quantity, but with an unexpected kick. It has the bright, citrusy bouquet of a much hoppier brew, without the bitterness. Wine Enthusiast tasted hints of rose petal, tangerine, orange zest, and nutmeg in it, and rated it a “classic.”

The extreme-beer era was under way.

Well, as everyone in Oregon knows, the "extreme-beer experiment" was already well, well underway. Dogfish Head came to the party 20 years after it started.

In the North Atlantic states, there are few breweries, even now. Calagione founded his in 1995, more than a decade after craft beer had heated up on the West Coast, and it was Delaware’s first brewery. In the absence of any competition, he learned his craft without market judgment. Were there three or four or fifty other competitors nearby, he wouldn’t have been so undisciplined. Bilger describes how he started brewing, which is a story we all know--cobbled-together equipment, everything done by hand, bankruptcy always at hand. The irritating thing is that Calagione's model for brewing seems to be: pull something out of your ass, think it through incompletely, run with it, and sneer "neener neener" at the naysayers along the way. Here's how he started brewing, and it looks a lot like how he still does things:
The tavern was a success from the day it opened. The beer took a little longer. Calagione had brewed fewer than ten batches before coming to Delaware, and he rarely used the same recipe twice. “I’d just grab herbs and spices and fruits from the kitchen and throw them in,” he says. “I used to think, Oh, it’s cool that every batch tastes different. It’s like snowflakes!”

... He made a medieval gruit with yarrow root and grains of paradise. He made an African tej with bitter gesho bark and raw honey. He made a stout with roasted chicory and St.-John’s-wort (“The world’s only antidepressant depressant,” he called it). While other brewers were dyeing their beer green for St. Patrick’s Day, Calagione brewed his with blue-green algae. “It tasted like appetizing pond scum,” he says. “The first sip, you were like, ‘Wow, that tasted like pond scum. But you know what? I kind of want a second sip.’ ”
I have no particular beef with Dogfish Head, though I have yet to find a beer from the brewery I genuinely like or admire. But to suggest that this is the state of craft brewing is flatly wrong. Calagione has a cheerful pirate-like attitude about industrial breweries, and Bilger casts this as the posture of all craft brewers. One wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that his lack of discipline also characterizes the industry. But of course, in heavily-breweried regions, it’s the opposite.

No breweries are founded in the Dogfish Head model now--at least not in regions of the country were there is any brewing presence. Like restaurants in big cities, when breweries open now, patrons expect excellence instantly. Drinkers won’t tolerate off-flavors, and they won’t reward pedestrian brewing. The days are gone when a guy who knows little about beer and less about brewing can found a successful brewery. No one is willing to endure years of bad beer while he learns his craft. New breweries now feature brewers who have apprenticed elsewhere and have years or decades of experience. A mention of this reality would have made the industry seem less half-assed.

Bilger's fuzzy thesis is part "hey, look, someone other than Bud is making beer" and part "craft beer has been around awhile, but it's only now evolving into something interesting." The lines between these theses are not clear. In either case, they're both misplaced. Interesting stuff has been going on a lot longer than Dogfish Head has been around, and Dogfish Head isn't the best example of the interesting things going on. (Reading the article after visiting Allagash makes the point all the more clear.) This is one of the downsides of the New Yorker model, though--pick the wrong interesting character, and your story goes sideways.

6 comments:

Brian said...

The folks at the New Yorker, or the NY Times generally don't get it. The Times had an article today that said McMinnville is 30 min from downtown Portland. Hah! They've never been through Dundee!

One of the brewers I knew in South Carolina would have had real problems with this article. He cared very much about producing consistently good beer. Actually, every brewer I've ever known has cared about that more than almost anything. It's the biggest reason I'm a chemistry professor and not a brewer. I like to experiment, which is ok for homebrew that I and a few of my braver friends are going to drink, but wouldn't fly with people who are buying the beer.

Bill said...

Jeff: The New Yorker has always admitted -- or should I say "reveled in" -- its myopia, as illustrated by the famous map.

Ben said...

I was wondering what the reaction was going to be to this article. It seemed like such a . . . well, you pretty much nailed it - good subject, weak research, wrong person to be talking about it. I will say that, having lived on the East Coast for awhile (DC) - Dogfish Head has a following.

Adam (Beersage) said...

I thought it was a great piece. Sure, the several-year veteran may realize it leads a 'noobie' down a stray path or two but all-in-all, it is just the sort of story that craft beer needs to keep a li'l momentum going.

Get 'em in the door and we can sort out the details later.

Besides, does Alan Sprints really want an author following him around for a month? You get my point.

Greg Veal said...

Ha! Intersting take. I've been a little sour on Sam, but for unrelated reasons. Seems to me Sam loves the spotlight (now he really has it - odd thing is, we recently submitted this show idea to travel channel and were rejected (I'm not Sam!)).

I admit, I'm always afraid of a new dogfish head beer. But I really like many of them. (I recently had a DFH Chicory stout AND a Founders B'fast stout with a meal. I preferred the DFH (with dinner) Actually, that is one of my favorite stouts.

But as I understand it, Andy Tveekrem has been doing the brewing and has gotten little press, little face time, and little recognition.

But now he has gone home to N.E. Ohio and will be a partner in a brewing/distilling brewpub/beer garden setting. Good for him!

NTL, I appreciate your perspective (it is more informed than mine). Or maybe it's just that Sam C is a difficult guy for me to like.

Jeff Alworth said...

Thanks for the commment, Greg. Having never met Sam, I'm agnostic about him personally. Since I wrote this post, I've also learned that a lot of the problems I had with Dogfish were related to the distance from Delaware and Oregon, and the violence it does to beers. I got a bad bottle of Festina Peche once, and thought it indicative of the brewery's quality. But then on tap later, it was fantastic and I would now call it one of the best beers in the country.

So while I remain ambivalent about the Dogfish method, I'm more positive than I used to be.

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