Sam Calagione, the founder and president of the ever-expanding Delaware brewery Dogfish Head, enjoyed a quick mini-tour of the Charleston area on Thursday evening (April 22), conducting a busy book signing session at Charleston Beer Exchange from 4:30-6 p.m. before heading over to an exquisite beer dinner at Laura Alberts Tasteful Options.
Amiable, approachable, and genuinely enthusiastic about sharing his beers, Calagione and greeted attendees in Laura Alberts' cozy foyer as folks from local company Lee Distributors mingled and staffers poured and served pints of the brewery's new seasonal ale Aprihop (an IPA infused with apricot).
More than 90 diners filled the place to capacity — in the inside dining rooms and on the outside patio.
The wine-centric Laura Alberts jumped into the craft beer game last year. They've maintained a healthy and positive approach to serving and pairing beer ever since, adding more and more bottled and draft varieties of tasty micros and imports to their menu and shelves. Owner Karen Elsey, her son Elliot, and a handful of highly professional servers were on hand on Thursday to introduce and assist Calagione.
The guest of honor darted back and forth between dining areas, doing triple-duty presentations at the top of each of the five courses. His stories about Dogfish Head's modest early days (when other bigger, more traditional brewers regarded his team as "freaks and heretics") got big laughs. With each course, he went into great detail about each of the seven beers on the menu and their compatibility with food.
Dogfish Head didn't enter the Charleston market until late 2008 (thanks to the old state law restrictions on high gravity beers). Over the last year, the hoppy and strong 90 Minute Imperial IPA, the high-gravity Palo Santo Marron, the honey-accented Midas Touch, and the exotic, sparkling Pangaea became big sellers in the Charleston area.
Calagione shared an amusing story about his honey/grape/saffron-accented Midas Touch ale during the first course. Dogfish Head's Midas Touch is made from one of the first beer-like recipes ever discovered, scraped from ancient barrels found in King Midas tomb in Turkey. "The German brewers who wrote the Reinheitsgebot [a strict "purity order" devised in the 1500s that allowed beer to made with only malted grain, hops, yeast, and water] back in the day set the standard for over 90 percent of the breweries for centuries. Some people say that only this the basis for truly traditional beer. We might argue that the Midas Touch is even more traditional." A tender, saffron-infused grit cake, frisee and bacon lardon salad, an vibrant red grape vinaigrette was a knock-out.
Up next was a delicate pairing of the spicy Pangaea with a perfectly seared sea scallops with tangy pineapple relish and pickled ginger mignonette. The ginger and fruit flavors of the dish nicely complemented the flavors and aromas of the golden ale.
The third course featured another sophisticated seafood ensemble — pecan-crusted Atlantic cod with a shittake/spinach/rice salad drizzled with a sweet and fruity wild cherry gastrique. The fragrant salad matched well with the flaky cod, but the fruity berry flavors of the dressing matched best with the Black & Blue, an intensely fruity Belgian-style ale brewed and aged with pureed blackberries and blueberries.
Cleverly skewered over a small bowl of rich and spicy Cajun caper remoulade, the two-piece IPA-battered tiger shrimp "dog" arrived with a glass of the assertively-hopped 90 Minute IPA — one of Dogfish Head's most bitter ales. Hoppy but highly drinkable, the IPA was a hit with the tasty fried dish.
The smoky oak and chocolate tones of Dogfish's high-gravity Palo Santo Marron — a dark-brown, wood-aged ale clocking in at 12 percent a.b.v. — matched the slightly charred/sweet flavors of the mesquite-smoked chicken topped with crispy bacon bits, bleu cheese crumbles, caramelized onions. The chicken was carefully balanced atop a thin, ciabatta crostini drizzled with balsamic reduction. With the light texture and subtle flavor, this course could have worked just as well in the a second or third spot, but the hearty, woody, richness of the ale segued terrifically into the after-dinner specialty — the rare Immort Ale.
At 11 percent a.b.v, Dogfish Head's Immort is special spring seasonal maple syrup from Calagione's family farm in Massachusetts, with vanilla beans, juniper berries, and peat-smoked barley in the mix. Aged with oak chips and fermented with a blend of English and Belgian yeasts, it was a malty, sweet, earthy, strong conclusion to a delicious evening.
Laura Alberts Tasteful Options conducts at least one craft beer dinner every month. Reserved seating is available for $55 per person. Seating is limited. Visit lauraalberts.com for more.