Rewriting the Rules of Brewing Beer

For decades, American brewers have followed strict rules set by German aristocrats in the 1500's.


Photo by JoeRuny/Flickr CC

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.

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.


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.



Midas Touch , at 9 percent ABV, was my favorite, though my wife preferred the Theobroma. The Midas Touch pours a thick head and a dark golden, red-tinged color. The nose is sweet, almost like bubble gum, though it's probably the Muscat grapes and raisins Calagione throws in. It tastes hoppier than the others, though it clocks in at just 12 international bitterness units (IBU), and the hops are balanced against a brawny sweetness. Maybe it was the royal back story, but I couldn't help imagining a strong, dry ale wrapped in a golden honey robe.

The Theobroma , on the other hand, was the most beer-like of the four, and to me the least interesting. It pours a thin head with a light brown color. It's made with cocoa powder and cocoa nibs, and you taste them right up front, when the beer smooth and rich. But it's also made with ancho chilies, and soon the spice takes over, sticking around on the back of an echoing bitterness. For all that, I found it boring. But Joanna disagreed--she loved it, finding all sorts of flavors in the brew, including honey, wood, and peach. Like the Midas Touch, it's 9 percent ABV, and its flavors are likewise built along a solid alcohol backbone.

The Sah'tea carries its spice forward, with the flavor of black pepper opening the door to an array of tastes--black tea (a blend made custom for Dogfish Head in India), cloves, citrus, ginger, and spiced oranges. Yet again, this beer is 9 percent ABV, though the alcohol was less obvious this time. The head is moderately sized and the color moderately golden, but the mouthfeel is immodestly thick and foamy, as if the beer didn't open up when it left the bottle and instead waited until it reached your mouth.

Then we came to the end: Chateau Jiahu , the oldest known brewing recipe in the world. Ironically, it has the most baroque ingredients. The folks at Dogfish Head can explain it better than I can:

In keeping with historic evidence, Dogfish brewers used pre-gelatinized rice flakes, Wildflower honey, Muscat grapes, barley malt, hawthorn fruit, and Chrysanthemum flowers. The rice and barley malt were added together to make the mash for starch conversion and degradation. The resulting sweet wort was then run into the kettle. The honey, grapes, Hawthorn fruit, and Chrysanthemum flowers were then added. The entire mixture was boiled for 45 minutes, then cooled. The resulting sweet liquid was pitched with a fresh culture of Sake yeast and allowed to ferment a month before the transfer into a chilled secondary tank.

That's a long way from the IPA my friends and I brewed (rather unsuccessfully) in their basement last month. But is it better? Alas, both Joanna and I put it last among the four. Like the others, it has a thick head and mouthfeel, with a honey brown color. There's honey in the nose, too, and honey in the taste, and honey in get the idea. It verges on sickly sweet, with just hints of the many spices and herbs added to the brew, other than a slight spice and a bitter finish.

All that aside, I'd drink it again, and that counts as a victory for Calagione. After all, he's as interested in making a profit as making a point: that beer--not "extreme" beer, or "freaky-weird" beer, just beer--extends far beyond the limits placed on it by sixteenth century German princes.