When you start a discussion about the evolution (or perhaps revolution) of craft beer in this country—and the resulting cresting tsunami of microbreweries—that conversation must include Dogfish Head. Regardless of how much you like or dislike its beers, denying its roll in America’s return to craft brewing (and in rescuing it from an ocean of blandness) is foolish. Sam Calagione is equal parts beer geek, brewing historian, maverick and businessman, and those just starting to get a foothold in the market know they are indebted to him for the path he’s carved. But at the end of the day, no matter how noble the intentions, some concepts are bound to fall short of their aim. Not quite jumping the shark, I guess, but at the very least caught in a leather jacket, shorts and water skis.
Sam, being the self-proclaimed music fan that he is, has developed three brews as tributes to milestone albums and seminal songs: Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Robert Johnson’s Hellhound on My Trail, and Pearl Jam’s Ten. As a self-proclaimed music fan myself, I of course ran breathlessly to liquor stores each time one of these was released, in hopes of nabbing a bottle before they all disappeared from the shelf. Bitches Brew was the first one I opened, and I was fortunate enough to be able to savor the beer while listening to the album it payed homage to…on vinyl. I then proceeded to rave about the music, the beer and their alchemy here. By all accounts, it was a kick-ass tribute to the music—it actually became a tactile interpretation of the sound, all at once fat, intricate, innovative, soulful and cerebral. Miles, I think, would’ve been both proud and flattered, especially given that the album didn’t originally meet a very warm reception in the world of jazz and jazz lovers. But this is pretty much where Sam and I kinda parted paths. The other two brews simply don’t draw the same parallels…don’t harmonize…don’t bear any fucking resemblance to each other whatsoever. Regardless of how nice a beer may be, if you’re going to make it a tribute to something, for christ’s sake, make evident the roots that gave birth to your tribute.
Hellhound on My Ale was brewed as a nod to what would have been Robert Johnson’s 100th birthday. For those that live in a bubble pathetic enough to never have heard Robert Johnson’s mastery of the blues, I pity you. Stop whatever Billy Joel song you’re listening to for the thousandth time and go buy King of the Delta Blues Singers or at the very least “borrow” a few MP3s from a more schooled friend. And no, having heard Clapton’s version of the song “Crossroads” is emphatically not enough. Johnson’s guitar playing was so complex that Keith Richards thought there were 2 men playing when he first heard his music. His vocal inflection was so nuanced that its honesty could be heard in a space beyond words. And his style went way beyond the niche known as Delta Blues…Robert Johnson was the blues. So you hear me yammering on about this bluesman and you figure, whoa, that’s gotta be some seriously soulful beer, right? But it isn’t. It’s a hoppy IPA with some citrus notes in honor of his mentor, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and I’m not sure why. Johnson doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who would have thrown back a bottle or two of this while laying down a track. A brew aged in whiskey barrels maybe…something smokey, something with teeth. Hellhound on My Ale has no teeth—dentures, maybe, but definitely no teeth. It’s well made (though not as hoppy as Sam touts), but “well made” isn’t good enough for a musical tribute. The brew is not reminiscent of the blues.
Faithfull Ale is Dogfish’s latest Music Series effort, meant to commemorate Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary as a band, and more importantly their game-changing debut album, Ten. But again, the brewery fell short of making a beer that could be sipped alongside the album and make that experience greater than the sum of its parts. Was it good? Kinda. Was it grunge? Not on its best day. Described as a Belgian-style golden ale brewed with black currants, Faithfull is light and fruity. When, in the name of all things rock, has Pearl Jam ever been described as light and fruity? Seriously? This brew was fit for The Castrati’s Greatest Hits, not Ten. And that classic Belgian funk that would have at least given the beer more of a rocker’s backbone was scarcely notable. I think Pearl Jam and I think visceral. I think raw. I think flannel shirts, unwashed jeans and big-ass, balls-to-the-wall angst. I do not, at any point in the daydream, think “fruity”. Eddie Vedder’s ukelele album was grittier than this beer, and hilariously enough, I am in no way dissing the album. I spent a lot of time on the phone hunting down this bottle, batting my eyelashes and securing what was probably the last of its kind to be found anywhere in the Tri-State area, but it wasn’t worth the effort (or the price tag) and it certainly didn’t live up to the wonderful noise that filled my head when I put the headphones on and heard the opening notes of “Once”.