At this point along the Delaware Wine and Ale Trail — Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, stop No. 3 — I should have been knocking back the 10th sample of the day. But I was on only my first drink, because I’d forgotten to pack my designated driver.
In all honesty, I didn’t need to tipple from every proffered cup to have a good time. In fact, I probably learned more, and will remember more, by rationing the alcohol.
The route, which runs through the entire state, touts a fermenter’s dozen of three wineries and 10 craft breweries. (Two beermakers, Iron Hill and Dogfish Head, appear twice.) Despite Delaware’s petiteness, you’d have to chug like Bluto in “Animal House” to squeeze all the venues into one day.
For a more civilized pace, I followed a rainbow of beer mugs that arced from the border of Maryland to the edge of the Atlantic. At my first stop, Evolution Craft Brewing in Delmar, I bumped into a pair of pilgrims who had taken the vertical tack.
“We do beer road trips,” said Charlie Ohrnberger, of Long Island, N.Y. “We started at Iron Hill, then went to Stewarts and now we’re here. We’re going to hit about five of the breweries on the trail.”
Ohrnberger and his companion, Cynthia Eagle, were seated at the compact bar sampling the five drafts. Since it was too early in my drive to claim the bar stool beside them, I asked Carter Price, who was lording it over the taps, for a history lesson on Evolution.
Brothers Tom and John Knorr created the brewery in 2009 to accompany their five restaurants on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The beers, however, quickly gained their own identity and following: Kathy and Craig Krauss, return visitors from Maryland, had popped in on their way home from Rehoboth Beach to refill their empty growlers. But first, two pints, please.
Evolution produces 3,500 barrels a year, a mere teardrop compared with its eastern Delaware neighbor Dogfish Head, which churns out 120,000 barrels. All the operations — fermenting, aging, bottling, labeling — take place inside an old grocery store, with an occasional spillover into the parking lot.
“There’s never an empty tank,” Price said as he poured Ohrnberger another porter. Nor an empty pint.
The beer continued to flow like a tawny-colored tributary about 20 miles northeast in Georgetown, where 16 Mile Brewery Co. is an even smaller operation: The four-person staff, including the two founders, produce 2,500 barrels a year. The brewery inhabits a century-old barn furnished with the requisite machinery plus a counter with chairs and a handful of tables and kegs refitted as padded stools.
The two-year-old brewery makes “classical English session” beers, which marketing director Claus Hagelman described as “easy to drink. It’s not about having to think, but to relax.”
While the other visitors indulged in the six free samples, I gulped down Hagelman’s informative tidbits. He explained the company’s name (Georgetown is no more than 16 miles from anywhere in Sussex County) and illustrated the owners’ allegiance to the state: Each beer is rooted in local lore. For example, Blues’ Golden Ale pays tribute to the Delaware Blues, the state’s first Continental Army regiment, which fought in most of the major Revolutionary War battles.
The brewery is expanding, adding a tavern in the back that will offer more seating, live music and one-off beers. But its long-term plans do not include dethroning Sam Adams, the king of craft brews. “Our goal is to make 25,000 barrels in two to three years,” said Hagelman, a former Dogfish Head executive. “That’s still relatively small.”
Of the breweries on the route, the largest in size and legend is Dogfish Head. Founder Sam Calagione, a pioneer and wizard among brewmeisters and hopsheads, facilitated changes to the state’s Prohibition-era laws, which had banned homemade beer ventures and brew pubs.
“Delaware was a little behind the times,” said John Novosel, a volunteer tour guide at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton. “But they’ve been a quick study.”
The 16-year-old company is a cult classic: A North Carolina mom and adult son I met on the tour had driven six hours to score a four-pack of 120 Minute, a limited-release India Pale Ale. This was not their first odyssey.
The facility, in a turn-of-the-20th-century cannery, is immense and hospital-clean. Novosel stood on a stool and spoke through a microphone, his voice pinging off the stainless steel tanks. He passed around pungent hops for our sniffing (dis)pleasure and pointed out the 10,000-gallon tank constructed of Paraguayan palo santo wood. “It’s like Guinness on steroids,” Novosel said of the resulting Palo Santo Marron brown ale.
That brew was not on the tasting menu that day, but the coveted 120 Minute was. The sippings followed a light-to-heavy gradation, mimicking a four-course menu that starts with, say, a spring salad and ends with Death by Chocolate cake.
The first cup contained Chateau Jiahu, an airy ale based on a 9,000-year-old Chinese recipe. “This was the oldest-known alcohol recipe,” said Novosel, who narrated my imbibing. “It was drunk in the afterlife.” Punkin Ale, a seasonal variety made with pumpkin puree, was next in line, followed by Olde School Barleywine, a fermented bowl of figs and dates. Then came the coup de grace with the kick of 18 percent alcohol.
The syrupy ale tingled on my tongue. I assumed that was the hops, poured into the brew for 120 minutes straight, performing their happy dance. A considerate guest, I drained my drink. Then I quietly slipped away from the bar in search of a strong chaser of water.
142 Second St., Lewes
Boutique hotel that’s a short hop from the breweries and wineries along the shore and in other southern points. Rates from $80.
1131 N. DuPont Hwy., Dover
Full-service hotel minutes from the two Dover breweries and central to other stops along the trail. Rooms from $145.
320 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach
The birthplace of Dogfish Head also serves food, including some dishes infused with the company’s beers (i.e., Raison D’Etre short ribs). Main dishes from $7.
710 Justison St., Wilmington
Pair craft beers with heightened pub fare, such as buffalo chicken egg rolls and blue cheese burgers. From $9.50.
Thirteen stops throughout the state. Some tours and tastings are free (i.e., Dogfish Head); others cost a nominal fee ($5 for a sampling at Evolution Craft Brewing Co.). Check hours in advance. Reservations strongly recommended at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery.