Some people live a charmed life. Sam Calagione always seemed like that kind of guy to me. 20 years ago this week Sam founded Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware. Over the past two decades the brewery has grown into a 175,000 barrel behemoth in craft beer, Sam has become a spokesperson for craft brewing, and few others have done more to move the industry forward.
Everyone knows Dogfish Head.
I have the pleasure of visiting Rehoboth about two to three times a year. I have run the Dogfish Dash, and will again this year. The brewery in Milton is a great place to visit and I always make a stop at the brewpub. The brewpub is where to check out what strange one offs and new brews are on tap. When it comes to Dogfish… If they brew it, I will buy it.
My favorite time to visit the brewpub is during the off season on Wednesdays. Way-back Wednesday is when they tap an aged keg of beer (at least 2 years old) and offer some tasty bottles for sale out of their cellar. In the early spring of 2009, I purchased two 2006 bottles of 120 Minute IPA, and then I promptly put them away for a special day.
120 Minute IPA is described as “the Holy Grail for hop heads.” Though the “whale” status on 120 Minute IPA has diminished due to ever changing tastes and wider availability, this beer still delivers a phenomenal experience. The two hour boil while continuously being hopped and the month long dry hopped aging process leaves you with a beer that is 15-20% ABV and a palate wrecking level of bitterness.
To celebrate 20 years of off center thinking and brewing I opened the nine year old bottle of 120 Minute IPA and poured it into a DFH IPA glass. The aging process produces significant changes in this brew. The hazy golden hue turns to a deep mahogany. The hop oils disappear and leave behind a sweet strong brew. The harsh astringency of alcohol is mellowed; still boozy but more inviting. The nose is somewhat oddly of maple and cherries with a slight orange tone. This full bodied beer comes across as downright heavy. Sipping brings forth rich malts with cherry and brown sugar sweetness. This beer is sweet but without a saccharin-like finish. It’s a proper sweetness. Light in carbonation, and long lasting in the finish, a 12 oz. bottle will last all evening or split perfectly between two.
I have yet to find a beer that is capable of such dramatic change via aging as this one. After resting for a number of years it can take on the depth and complexity of a top shelf after dinner cordial. A fresh 120 and a well-aged one are only discernable as the same brew by the label on the bottle. It is a magical transformation.
The general rule is “hoppy” beers must be consumed fresh to get all their dank, resin, citrus and pine like flavors at peak. But this beer is the exception. I much prefer it aged 5 or more years and I am very happy that I have many more sleeping quietly in the dark waiting for their day.
Dogfish Head and Sam Calagione are champions for an entire industry. They make great beer. Period. But their 20 years of success are not based on a charmed existence or good luck. Anyone that has watched Beer Wars or the short lived series Brew Masters knows that their success is based on hard work, an exacting demand for quality, and unrelenting desire to push the envelope. I think it is clear that this brewery is aging just as well as their top flight beer. They both are just getting better with the years.