Friday, September 14, 2012

Does Dogfish Head live up to the hype?

Just like any breed of geek, beer geeks can be a knee-jerk lot prone to pounce before they've heard your entire message. (I like to think I know geeks, what with being a coauthor of Geek Wisdom and all.) So let me say this up front: Dogfish Head fans, I am a fan, too. I like their beer and will explain why. Dogfish Head critics, I am not a DFH fanboy. Their beer is often flawed and I will explain why.

So with that out of the way, let's just get into it. Let's try to take an honest look at Dogfish Head, a brewery with fans more rabid than even Stone and Rogue, and beers that are just as divisive as both.

DFH's shtick, to use a term more dismissive sounding than intended, is to break the rules. To do so-called "extreme" beers. To throw out the rulebook and, to paraphrase founder Sam Calagione, to let their freak flag fly.

That's not a bad thing. Hell, it's the thing I most admire them for and it's what makes their most interesting beers, well, interesting. They brew with ingredients people just don't brew with and resurrect ancient recipes (as best as they can guess them) and push things to extremes just to see if they can.

But it also means their beers can run very hot and cold. They can divide people like few others. When they do great beers they do fantastic beers. Their Bitches Brew (a big imperial stout blended with honey-based Tej), Palo Santo Marron (a giGANtic brown ale aged on rare wood), and Sah'Tea (an old Finnish beers with a Chai-based twist) are some of the most intriguing beers on the market. I'd put them up against almost any beer I've had. Yet when they're bad, let's be honest, they're bad. Beers like the ginger-laden Pangaea are overpriced and gimmicky (even if that now retired beer did drink okay), Black & Blue is an unlikable fruit drink that doesn't know if it's beer or champagne, and in my opinion Black & Red is the most disgusting, vile beverage ever put in a glass, a concoction of chocolate and mint that tastes like a mouth full of dank toothpaste. I genuinely couldn't even finish a 2 oz sample at their Rehoboth, DE brewpub.

Keep in mine, those are only my opinions. Part of the fun of all this is that people will disagree with my views, and strongly. With Dogfish especially, these beers are so far off the beaten path that there is rarely any middle ground with them. You love 'em or hate 'em.

In between the above extremes they have excellent beers that challenge and delight you, or gross you out, or leave you thinking they're overrated. The 90 Minute IPA is an example of the latter; some think it's divine, others say it's a hot, malty mess. For the record, I like it, but I also don't think it's a great double IPA. It's a strong ale ... but we're getting into geeky terminology here. The bottom line is, these guys experiment a lot and few brews are what you expect. If they do a beer, it's with a twist. If they do a Belgian, they muck with it. If they do a stout, they go big. (Really frickin' big!) If they go for an older style, do they a freakin' Aztec chocolate beer that tastes like no other chocolate beer on the market. Yeah.

And yep, sometimes this stuff falls flat on its face. Hard.

None of this is a bad thing. Not if you're willing to accept the bad with the good. Not if you're willing to accept the idea that if you experiment hard you'll sometimes stumble. These guys often take chances. They even rope respected brewers into it. Sure, even their basic quirks aren't always great. For instance, I love their 60 Minute IPA, but in the world of IPAs it's honestly just 'pretty good' rather that GREAT. Really well balanced thanks to their innovative way of adding hops, very tasty, but among the best IPAs in the country as some would have you believe? No.

Yet that doesn't matter. Not really. Because the whole point of checking out this brewery is to drink something way off the beaten path. To blow the doors off your expectations ... and yeah, to sometimes have something that sucks on wheels.

The bottom line is, Dogfish Head makes really freakin' good beers that are often unlike anything you've had before. And sometimes they make bad beers that are too damn hot with alcohol, or are too imbalanced with offbeat ingredients, or that are just plain boring for the price. It's true, fans. They really do. Some of their experiments suck.

And that's okay.

The reason we (meaning "I") admire them is for their willingness to experiment. Yeah, sometimes the results stink. And sometimes the cult of personality surrounding Sam gets to be too much. (That's a subject I avoided in this post like the coward I am, but for the record, he seems like a personable, down to Earth guy to me, the sort of dude you'd love to drink beer and talk music with. Especially music.) But DAMN, when they nail a good beer, it's really damn good!

So it's like this: It's okay to say they get too much hype among some beer geeks because that's probably close to true when you consider the many awesome brewers who don't get a fraction of the attention, but if you think they have nothing to offer when it comes to beer because they're all based on hype, you're wrong, wrong, wrong.


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