Ever since he broke into the business in 1995, mixing malt and hops in a soup pot in his Rehoboth Beach brewpub, Sam Calagione has been blurring the line between beer and food. The Dogfish Head founder has raided his pantry for ingredients (cocoa powder, brown sugar, raisins) for his house-brewed beers. Conversely, the brewpub has experimented with dozens of beer dishes, from a hummus with IPA-marinated olives to pale-ale ketchup to hop-oil brownies.
“We’ve been a brewery focused on food since the day we opened,” he says.
Now, Calagione has taken the first step toward national distribution of a new line of what the brewery terms “beer-centric” foods. Already available via www.dogfish.com are Dogfish Head Hop-Pickles and Dogfish Head Hard-Tack Clam Chowder, both spiced with 60 Minute IPA. Four ale-infused bratwursts debuted last month at Bunyan’s Lunchbox, a food truck in the shape of a gigantic lunch box parked outside Dogfish’s Milton, Del., brewery. It’s Calagione’s test kitchen for new recipes and ground zero for his latest venture, which he calls Project Bunyan. Look for the wursts to hit this area early this month and to pop up in specialty food marts throughout the Northeast by late summer.
The sausages are the result of more than a year of R&D, as the brewery teamed with the Original Brat Hans, a specialty division of Purdue in Salisbury, Md., to sample small-batch spice-and-meat combos. The four that made the grade are: classic bratwurst, made with pork, coriander, white pepper, mace, mustard and Sam’s dark Belgian-style ale Raison d’Etre; the Heirloom Italian Brat, with pork, fennel, red pepper and the honey-accented Midas Touch; the Greek Feta Brat, with chicken, feta cheese, spinach, mint, cumin, lemon and Midas Touch; and the Spicy Espresso Brat, combining chicken, espresso powder, cumin, habanero pepper and the mocha notes of Chicory Stout. The sausage factory, Calagione says, makes a beer reduction that is added before the meat is stuffed into the casings. Boiling down the beers chases away the alcohol but intensifies the beers’ flavors. For that reason, Calagione opted to use three of his sweeter, more malt-forward brews; concentrating the hop bitterness in a pale ale or IPA might result in a severe case of bitter beer face.
Joe Hospital, a partner in the area’s three Dogfish Head Alehouses, said the restaurants might start serving a sampler of three of the beer brats as early as this week. (The Greek Feta Brat will show up later.) In Milton, the sausages are served on buns baked from brewer’s barley. But the alehouses, says Hospital, will offer “a lighter, fluffier” version of their pretzel roll to fit around the wursts’ thicker girth.
Like the brats, the Hard-Tack Chowder is a partnership with a Delmarva-based business: Sea Watch International, a family-owned clam harvester in Easton. “It’s probably the most distinctive chowder we’ve formulated,” says Guy Simmons, Sea Watch’s vice president of marketing and product development. The addition of the hoppy 60 Minute IPA to a broth containing clams, potatoes, onions and salt pork “takes it to the next level.”
The ingredient that really tickles Simmons’s fancy, however, is the crumbled-up hardtack, a hard, largely flavorless cracker baked from flour and water that was once a standard ration for soldiers and sailors. “It’s virtually not sold today,” says Simmons; Sea Watch had it replicated at the bakery that produces the breading for its seafood. Hardtack, as Simmons describes it, adds a little texture and a toasty note, like that of a slightly singed saltine. Despite its minor contributions, Calagione insisted on it. He wanted to duplicate a recipe found in Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” where the author writes of a chowder “made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazelnuts, mixed with pounded ship’s biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes.”
Hard-Tack Chowder comes in 15-ounce cans that retail for $4 online. Directions call for the addition of eight ounces of half-and-half to reconstitute the chowder, plus three ounces of the brewery’s Palo Santo Marron, a strong brown ale aged in tanks made of a fragrant South American hardwood. Letting the chowder simmer at 160 to 170 degrees “does eliminate at least some of the alcohol, but I’m not the expert to say how much,” says Simmons.
The Hop-Pickle debuted at last year’s Fancy Food Show in Washington. The Huffington Post dubbed it one of the exhibition’s top 15 “best bites” and called it “the most hipster thing you’ve ever seen.”
The versatile 60 Minute IPA is used to marinate the pickles. Calagione ships it to New York in 200-gallon stainless-steel containers; the beer is first “denatured” (rendered unfit to drink) by being laced with salt so that Dogfish Head isn’t liable for alcoholic beverage taxes. Brooklyn Brine, a purveyor of pickled vegetables, adds the IPA to a brine made from apple cider vinegar, tossing in some habanero peppers and caramelized onions. The brine is boiled for an hour and a half before the pickles are immersed in it, according to Shamus Jones, owner of Brooklyn Brine. That evaporates the alcohol, rendering the pickles safe for underage snackers and pregnant women with a craving.
It’s “the earthy bitterness” that grabs you, says Calagione. The pickles are available in 16-ounce jars of chunky slices that retail for $8 via the Dogfish Web site. They’re also available through specialty food chains from New York down through Virginia.
Dogfish Head might be ahead of the curve, but other regional breweries are branching into beer cuisine. St. George Brewing in Hampton, Va., area is known for its English-style ales and for the Tuppers’ Hop Pocket Ale it brews under contract. But the brewery’s bestseller is a malty red ale that you won’t see in six-packs. It’s diluted to an alcohol content of 0.3 or 0.4 percent, then shipped to Newport News, where High Liner Foods processes it into a beer batter for its Icelandic Seafood line.
Elsewhere in the Chesapeake Bay area, Parfections, a Cockeysville, Md.-based confectioner, teams with brewer Heavy Seas in Halethorpe, Md., to market a line of beer-infused truffles. Parfections’ Web site lists seven varieties, including the Loose Cannon Ale Truffle, which matches the beer’s citrusy hop content with dark chocolate and orange zest, and the Peg Leg Truffle, made with imperial stout and garnished with crushed coffee beans.
Heavy Seas founder Hugh Sisson says he’s happy with the collaboration but has no plans for additional beer comestibles. “I’d like to go down that path, but there aren’t enough hours in the day,” he sighs.
Calagione, whose operation is in the midst of an expansion that will boost capacity to more than a half-million barrels, can understand how the pressure to pump out liquid overwhelms all else. His first foray into packaged food, in 1999, was pints of ice cream flavored with Raison d’Etre. “But we didn’t have the space to continue it. That’s why we’ve decided to partner with other food companies.”
Project Bunyan is also a philosophical statement on how small businesses can compete in an economy dominated by mega-corporations. A brewery press release reads: “If Dogfish Head is to have lasting meaning and lasting distinction in an increasingly challenging beer industry, where foreign companies continue to gobble up marketshare, we need to focus more on local, on human scale, on resources that come from the mid-Atlantic region and on things that haven’t been done before.”
Although his hands are full at the moment, the entrepreneurial Calagione sees almost limitless possibilities in broadening his offerings: “Our lineup of 34 beers is like a giant liquid spice rack,” he says.
Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.