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Interviews

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3/7/04: Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head: 

What do you say about Sam Calagione? Genius? Showman? Innovator? Menace? I say the man's done one hell of a lot for beer in the east with his constant pushing of the boundaries, and his relentless and successful search for press for both Dogfish Head and the industry. Not to mention he's just a lot of fun to be around. I interviewed Sam for a piece I did for Ale Street News on making the hoppiest beer possible. I talked to a brewing chemist to get the technical dope on how things worked, but I wanted to get the subjective, artistic viewpoint on scaling the highest heights of hops. Sam seemed like the right man to talk to; he is not afraid of barriers or utmosts.  

Lew: I wanted to get you on this because youíre the hop guy on the East Coast.

Sam: Okay. Well, as you know, we do the 60, 90 and 120 Minute IPAs. The 90 we started selling it in the big corked bottles in 1999. Iím pretty sure it was the first bottled Imperial IPA (IIPA); I know Vinnie (Cilurzo) on the west coast claimed the first IIPA, but Iím pretty sure that was draft only. I donít really know, but we were certainly the first IIPA east of the Mississippi. The continual hopping process was certainly something that worked out well for us. It started out with that vibrating football game...Iíll bet your technical guy didnít mention that.

Iím pretty sure he wasnít aware of that development, no.

We used that on all of the IPAs.

What does the continual hopping get you? I assume you didnít do that just to justify using a vibrating football game in brewing.

No. We started with that vibrating football game, then we developed and designed our own pneumatic machine. What I really wanted to do was to drop one hop cone into the kettle continuously, like drop drop drop drop drop drop drop drop drop, but that was physically impossible, I would have had to stand there and do that, so I tried to rig up a machine that would do that. Now we have a machine called Sir Hops A Lot, with a little 3x3 tray that pneumatically doses the hops in every three to five seconds. Itís almost continual.

What we were shooting for, what finally ended up working, was doing away with the whole idea of bittering hops and aroma hops. What if you just hopped it with tiny doses continually? Youíd end up with equivalent IBUs, but it allows you to make a beer with higher IBUs that we find has more hoppiness but less bitterness. It makes for a beer thatís really really hoppy without being overly bitter.

Everythingís sort of proportionate with those beers, theyíre the exact same recipe, just kind of, 90 Minute is condensed 60 Minute, and 120 Minute is double-condensed, NASA-grade 90 Minute. Itís IPA concentrate.

What objective measures of hoppiness are there?

Objective? The IBUs are really the only benchmark we use. Mostly weíre more concerned with the subjective side of it, because as youíre pointed out, some of our bigger beers are perceived to be less hoppy because there are more residual sugars. So as you go up the scale in alcohol and minutes, 60-90-120, the beers actually become less bitter, even though the IBUs are higher.

Is it possible to make a beer with a lot of residual sugar as bitter as, say, the 90 Minute?

I would say so, but it wouldnít taste good. You could just overhop the shit out of it and it would just be gross. We could have made the 90 more bitter, certainly, either with bittering hops in the kettle or even by adding oils post-fermentation, which some IPAs are done with Ė but that would be more for perceived bitterness and aroma, vs. adding it in the kettles for pure IBUs Ė but that was not the balance that beer needed. That beer tastes best with a bit more maltiness to it. The 120 is the biggest challenge, because there are so many more residual sugars in it to strike that balance. As you go up the scale, the sugar scale and the IBU scale, striking the balance becomes a more exact process.

Youíve approached the task of creating the worldís strongest beer; is the 120 a shot at the worldís hoppiest beer? And if not, how would you approach that?

Itís what we consider the most gigantic representation of the IPA style. What we were trying to do was to hit every facet of that style. Same thing with World Wide Stout, where we wanted to be just huge huge huge, but when you closed your eyes and taste it, you still know itís some bastard child of the stout family. We wanted the same thing with the 120. As opposed to when you try the Sam Adams-over-20% beers, you close your eyes and youíre thinking "liquor" before you think "beer." Youíre definitely thinking this is impressive, itís really well made, but I donít think beer comes to your mind unless youíre told that. Weíre trying to make a magnified version of existing styles.

I really loved that about the World Wide Stout; that itís definitely, obviously a stout, and not some bizarre mutant.

Thatís why we tried really hard to have some level of carbonation in those beers. Theyíre so viscous that itís very hard to keep carbonation in those beers, so we had to experiment with that as well. We feel that itís a necessary and positive component.

Weíve already talked about this, butÖat what point does hoppiness end and bitterness begin? At one point does it stop being pleasant and just become astringent?

Thatís subjective, and I think peopleís tastes are evolving to be more receptive to higher hopping levels. We didnít think 7 years ago, when our core brands were Shelter Pale Ale and Raison díEtreÖif youíd told me that a 60 IBU and a 90 IBU IPA would be our biggest-selling beer and our fastest-growing brand, respectively, I donít think I would have believed it. But that seems to be, as this community of beer lovers evolves and grows in America, I think that hoppy beers have become a more central and shared passion of this group. The Belgian and Belgian-style beer contingent are pretty vocal, to say the least, but other than that, the hopheads are the most militant, passionate, and vocal components of the hardcore beer community.

Is there a theoretical limit beyond which additional hops are utilized any more, they just kind of float off?

Yeah. And thatís something thatís been talked about in more technical papers. I think if you were to contact someone like Tomme Arthur (Pizza Port) and Tom Nickel (Oggi) that they could probably talk more about that technical side than I could. Again, at the end of the day, that technical stuff is really useful to the brewers to have some kind of track record, but it really comes down to what does it taste like in the glass, not what did they hit for IBUs. Itís great to have that scale to refer back to as brewers, but I donít think itís the kind of thing we want to emphasize with the consumer. I think itís just too techno-jargon, too exclusive a terminology. Weíd rather just talk about what hops do for the beers: citrusy, bitterness, complexity, and not get into throwing numbers around when you already have to throw alcohol numbers around. Another number can just complicate things for the less beer-savvy people that we want to try the beer.

Describe Randall for me.

6' 8", blue eyes... Randall evolved out of the whole Lupulin Slam thing in DC. I have great respect for Adam Avery, Tomme and Tom, and I knew theyíd be bringing some big guns Ė theyíre big brewers Ė so we wanted to have something special to represent the East Coast. I had an old mash filter that we actually found in the same scrapyard where we found our still. Some people call it a scrapyard, we call it the R&D lab. We went in there two years ago and found this thing. We donít even know what industry used it, it was just a long stainless steel cylinder with another cylinder inside it, perforated, pressure-rated, gaskets, the whole nine yards, and we were able to use it to pick up any grain husks that got out of the mash tun on the way to the kettle. I took that thing, and thought about it.

How big is it?

That one was about three feet long and had about a seven inch, six-inch diameter, I guess. It was already set up with sanitary brewerís fittings, industry standard fittings, so it was perfect for filtering the husks out. I thought about it, and drew something up. You know how a lot of English breweries use hopbacks? After the kettle on the way to the fermenter, your beerís going through a filter of hops. We use dry-hopping in our primary fermentation, we use them in the kettle, we use hops all the way through to the conditioning tank. So the final frontier was kind of like, what do you do after the keg?

Thatís how the whole philosophy of Randall came up. It serves two purposes. How it works: beer leaves the keg, and goes through what we call the Aromatic Hydrocarbon Dispersion Matrix. (mad cannabinoid giggling) Thatís basically the filter inside of this thing. It works really well with high alcohol beers, so the 90 or the 120 work a lot better than the 60, because the alcohol in the beer is whatís stripping the oils off of the hop leaves on the way through Randall. So you get more effect with a bigger beer. The beer goes through the cylinder and picks up these oils. Itís not changing IBUs, itís kind of too late for that, but itís definitely giving a huge, pungent, fresh hop aroma to the beer. And it also just enhances the perceived bitterness Ė no, not really; the actual bitterness.

So we didnít know what the hell, weíd never even used it, we just went down there (to RFD in Washington). We didnít even test it, but we had faith that it would work, so we packed it the day before and then we hooked it up.

You charged it with beer before you hooked it up, right?

Yeah, so it was sitting there and the oils were seeping into the beer before we even hooked it up. Then you run it through it.

That first jolt of beer out of it must have been frightening.

Yeah, that was super-intense. But then even after that first half-gallon that was already in it came through, itís still picking up, the beerís still picking up oils. Weíve found that it works best with a sixtel, a five gallon keg. The Randalls that we now are making are sized correctly so that one load of hops in the Randall works well for a five gallon keg; after that, you start losing the effect a bit.

At any rate, it worked great. Tom Nickel was kind of amazed at this machine. All those west coast guys are friends of mine and we were sitting around later and he said, "Iíll order one!" and Dave Alexander (of RFD) on the spot ordered two. Since then weíve installed them in Ė I just got back from Chicago, I installed two there, the Blind Tigerís installing one, OíBrienís, Tom Nickel's place is installing one.

My idea was to use these Ė the Randall we developed after this prototype is actually a clear plastic model. The main parts are water filter parts, and there are only two or three custom parts in it that weíve designed, that have the right sort of calibration of slots in them for the holes (on the tapline connectors), but everything else you can pretty much get easy.

Two great things there: it becomes very affordable for bars or breweries to buy these. We can make them for like 70 bucks now. The other great thing is the teacher factor. Randallís a great tool for the consumer, because it shows people the effects of hops. A, it shows them the hop leaf right there at the point where theyíre getting the pint, and B, they see the beer run through this Randall and come out the other side, and you can bypass the Randall and show them the difference.

We see this as an awesome opportunity to educate the consumer on what hops does for beer. When we did this, and these other breweries said they were interested, I said, you know, karmically, I donít want to make any money off this thing. Iíd rather do this at cost, and whoever wants to buy these things can buy them. I think itís really good for the industry. So weíve already made about 8 Randalls for different guys that want them. We both know itís never going to be "Friday nightís Randall Night at T.G.I. Fridayís!" Itís going to be for hard-core beer bars and hard-core brewpubs. But I think almost any hard-core beer bar and hard-core brewpub in America could benefit from using one, solely for the reason of how quickly it makes people understand hops. It demystifies the whole hopping idea at the brewery, itís a great thing for that.

Weíre doing the Linux model, where we donít want to make any money, but what we do want to do is set up a little chat room on our website where the guys who get these things can say, okay, hereís how we used it, hereís an improvement we would suggest design-wise, this is a Randall promotion we used that worked really well. Like, Tom Nickel had a great idea; his clientele is so beer-savvy that heís going to have every Friday at 5 be Randall Night, right, and leading up the night before, his regulars can submit a piece of paper saying, okay, this is the whole leaf hop we want it loaded with, and this is the beer we want it on. So...Sierra Nevada Brown Ale, Cascade. And next week it could be Stone Arrogant Bastard loaded with Tomahawk. You totally allow bar customers to customize the beer and the hopping, itís a unique thing to do. That was Tomís idea and I think itís a great one.

You could almost see someone saying Hook it up to a keg of Bud and pack it with Tettnanger, just to see what the hell happens!

Yeah! I think that would be great, that would show how even a little hop would bring a beer like that out of balance. I could see somebody having fun with that.

Itíll be fun, but itís not going to be everywhere. The New York Times Dining sectionís doing a story on it, so thatís going to happen. I imagine weíll have 30 or 40 Randalls over time, a little army of Randalls across America, out there spreading the word about hops.

But what is Randall? Is Randall part of the finishing process, is it a dispensing mechanism?

Itís an Organoleptic Hops Transducer Module. Thatís what Randall is, thatís what weíre saying. Randall the Enamel Animal, thatís his whole name.

Okay, whatís a transducer? I get the organoleptic part, but...

It sends it through? Yeah. Randall the Enamel Animal, because you know how when you drink a nice huge hoppy beer it feels like itís ripping the outer layer of enamel off your teeth? Thatís how it got that name. It gets pretty quiet in the off-season here in Delaware, youíd be amazed the shit we think up. Last year it was the Pain Relievaz project, this year it was Randall. Weíre keeping things interesting.

 

Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: May 02, 2004