In late April I was lucky enough to join my teammates on a trip to film the Dogfish Head brewery. Ostensibly I was there to take pictures and write about the trip, but I suspect the real reason I was invited was to drive everyone home in case the beer proved to be too delicious.
Located in Milton, Delaware, and nestled between cornfields and the beach, it’s easy to see why Dogfish Head’s founder, Sam Calagione, chose this spot for his company. Before Dogfish Head set up shop in 1995, Delaware was one of only a handful of states without a brew pub. The state actually had to change Prohibition-era laws to allow Dogfish Head to operate.
While growing, Dogfish Head is still a tiny operation when compared to the makers of Budweiser and Miller. It’s what’s called a craft brewery, and often part of being a craft brewery is making unusual beers. Dogfish Head makes some particularly strange brews. Calagione once created a brew called Chicha, based on traditional Peruvian beer made with corn. Just as ancient Peruvians once did (and still do), Dogfish Head brewers chewed the corn in their own mouths to convert the starches into sugar. I turns out enzymes in human saliva are almost as effective at transforming starch into sugar as the traditional germination process is.
But the beers we were most interested in were their ancient ales, brews made with recipes based on the analysis of residue found in pottery at archeological sites. Pat McGovern, or Dr. Pat as he known to the folks at Dogfish Head (and a guest on our May webcast), is a “beer archaeologist” whose research has inspired many brews. One of Dogfish Head’s most popular ancient ales is called Midas Touch, made from honey, grapes, and saffron. It was Dr. Pat’s first collaboration with Dogfish Head, one in which he used molecular analysis on pottery found in the tomb of King Midas in Turkey to determine the ingredients.
The oldest recipe brewed so far at Dogfish Head is from Jiahu, a 9,000-year-old Neolithic village in China. Named Chateau Jiahu, the beer is made from rice, honey, fruit, and flowers. The brewery claims that the beer is based on the oldest-known fermented beverage in the world. Reading the list of ancient ales is like looking at a timeline of the history of beer making.
Dogfish Head is one of the first American breweries to use materials besides metal to store their aging beer. Oak and terra cotta allow oxygen to permeate the beer and “soften” it, say the people at Dogfish Head. The process releases some of the alcohol into the air, and you smell it immediately. One vat is made from Palo Santo (“holy tree”), an incredibly dense type of wood from South America that imparts a slight spiciness to the beer. The wood is so dense that when I tried picking up a small slab of it, it felt like a heavy stone.
There were many other things I learned during the shoot, far more than I can fit here. If you want to know more about the chemistry of beer, watch the webcast on CHF’s Tumblr and check out pictures from the trip on Flickr.
By Jacob Roberts
Image: The CHF crew records Justin Williams, Off-Centered Storyteller at Dogfish Head, as he explains the beer aging process. On the far left is a vat made of Palo Santo.