This fall, Charleston beer lovers celebrated the arrival of several wild and flavorful varieties of ale from the Delaware-based micro Dogfish Head. Four of the company's most eclectic and distinctive beers hit the local stores in October — the wonderfully bitter and hoppy 90 Minute Imperial IPA, the oak-tinged and malty Palo Santo Marron, the exotically floral Midas Touch, and the ginger-accented Pangaea.
In the centuries before hops became the favored ingredient to bitter, flavor, and preserve beer, European brewers experimented with a variety of herbs, spices, fruits, and woods — from juniper branches and rosehips to honey, dried orange peels, coriander, and licorice. Dogfish's new arrivals seem inspired by this very old-school practice.
The company started making beer in 1995 when they opened Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in the beach community of Rehoboth Beach. It was the smallest commercial brewery in America at that time. Within a few successful years, the company activated a major expansion, switching from making very small, homebrew-style batches to industrial-sized sessions in a sizeable brew house. In 2002, they relocated their main production brewery to a converted cannery in Milton, Del. They currently produce 20 styles of beer that are sold in more than 25 states.
When Dogfish Head craft-brewed ales arrived in town, the Charleston Beer Exchange sent an excited message to their beer-loving followers: "This amazing, award-winning brewery has long been a craft beer lover's staple on the East Coast. ... We are absolutely thrilled that Lee Distributors will be bringing Dogfish Head beer to Charleston."
At a sturdy strength of 9 percent alcohol by volume (a.b.v.), the 90 Minute Imperial IPA is a copper-colored, American-style Imperial India Pale Ale (or "double IPA"), named for its intensive brewing process. Brewers continually add hops for 90 minutes during the boil for bitterness, and then dry-hop in the fermentation casks to achieve high aroma and flavor. Despite the massive amounts of hops, a clean, grainy malt character ekes through, balancing some of the bitterness and grassy flavors.
If the 90 Minute Imperial IPA is an adventure in hop flavor and bitterness, the high-gravity Palo Santo Marron aims for sweeter fun along the lines of wood and dark malts. The dense, mahogany-brown ale clocks in at 12 percent a.b.v. Aged for months in wooden tanks made from Paraguayan Palo Santo wood ("holy wood"), the ale is very well-conditioned, and its oaky notes complement the roasted malt aroma. It finishes with a smooth blend of wood, chocolate, and a faintly medicinal burn of alcohol.
Another strong variety (9 percent a.b.v.) is the Midas Touch, a honey-flavored, golden ale that's less intimidating than the Palo Santo Marron, but just as flavorful. It's labeled "an ancient ale," based on the "2,700 year old drinking vessels discovered in the tomb of King Midas." The Dogfish brewers add white muscat grapes, honey, and saffron to the boil, creating a very buttery-sweet floral beer with a strange fruitiness. Hints of butterscotch, apple, and dandelions accent the finish.
Available only in corked 750 ml champagne bottles, the Pangaea (7 percent a.b.v.) is the lightest-colored, most wine-like of the bunch. Delicately sweet and spicy, this "limited-edition" beer boasts that it's "brewed with ingredients from every continent." Crystallized ginger (from Australia) provides the most prominent accent in the flavor and aroma, just ahead of a citrusy, candy-sweet malt character. Effervescent and refreshing, Pangaea might be the beer lover's best substitute for sparkling wines on special occasions such as New Year's Eve and weddings.