Rewriting the Rules of Brewing Beer

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A few months ago, at SAVOR --a massive, multi-day craft beer festival in Washington, D.C.--I had the chance to watch Sam Calagione in action. Calagione is the owner of Delaware's Dogfish Head brewery and a leading figure in the "extreme beer" movement, making brews that test the limits of hoppiness, alcohol level, and ingredients, and that evening he was giving a one-man panel on "ancient" beers.

I'd heard lots of stories about Calagione, that he was as much a performer and raconteur as a beer master, the sort of guy you want to crack a beer with, especially if it's one of his. He didn't disappoint. He greeted everyone at the door, tanned and smiling broadly, handing out copies of his latest book. Later, speaking without notes on the dais, he wove into his presentation anecdotes, diatribes, trivia, and tasting insights, all with the laid-back bluntness of a Long Beach surf bum.

In recent years Dogfish Head has been recreating ancient beer recipes, many derived from residues found at excavation sites.

Calagione embraces the "extreme" label, but at the panel he also pushed back against it. The beer most Americans know derives from a strict set of rules set out by the Germans in the 16th century, the so-called Reinheitsgebot . But, Calagione pointed out, beer in some form has been brewed for thousands of years. So why restrict ourselves? And why do we call some recipes "extreme," even though, in the long march of time, they are more typically "beer" than your average pilsner?

To prove his point, in recent years Dogfish Head, at times working an archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania, has been recreating ancient beer recipes, many derived from residues found at excavation sites. None would meet the German definition of beer; they mix in seeds, rice flakes, berries, honey--the sort of good stuff our ancient ancestors would have on hand, but which we, for whatever reason, keep far away from our beer vats.

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Photo by kowitz/Flickr CC

Dogfish Head has made four ancient brews, so far: Theobroma, based on Mayan and Aztec chocolate drinks; Chateau Jiahu, from a 9,000 year-old Chinese recipe; Midas Touch, drawn from residue found at what is believed to be the tomb of King Midas, in Asia Minor; and Sah'tea, the latest, derived from a thousand-year-old Finnish quaff (the original drink is called Sahti).

The brewing process for Sah'tea, as Burkhard Bilger explained in a profile of Calagione in the New Yorker , is an elaborate one. The rye-based wort is caramelized by adding hot rocks to the vat (tenth-century Finns used wood barrels to brew, which meant open flames were out as a heat source). But that's only the first step; as Bilger writes,

The last stage of the brewing process was the most unorthodox. Traditionally, sahti is flavored with juniper alone, but Calagione wanted something more unusual. After the hops and the juniper berries had been added to the wort, he took the bag of spices from his truck and steeped it in a bucket of hot water. The mixture contained cardamom, coriander, ginger, allspice, rampe leaves, lemongrass, curry powder, and black tea, custom blended for Calagione in India. It would be added at the last moment, he said, so that its volatile flavors wouldn't boil off. The idea was to amplify the already spicy flavors of the juniper berries and the Hefeweizen yeast--to turn the sahti into Sahtea.

We tried a few of these beers, among others, at the SAVOR panel, but I later picked them all up to try again at home. For all their differences in ingredients and brewing details, they have similar characteristics: thick, foamy mouthfeels; strong alcohol overtones; and rich, spicy flavors.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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