IN THE INCREASINGLY crowded world of microbrews, Delaware's Dogfish Head Brewery has made its mark by embracing the unconventional, eschewing crowd-pleasing lagers to produce some of the most esoteric beers around.
Devoted fans rush out to buy legendary small-batch runs such as Pangea, which uses an ingredient from every continent. (Antarctica provides the water.) The sweet Midas Touch Golden Elixir owes its honey-tinged flavor to archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology who discovered traces of 2,700-year-old fermented beverages in drinking vessels while excavating a tomb in Gordion, Turkey, they believe held the body of King Midas. A few years ago, molecular archaeologists analyzed those remnants and turned to Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione for help re-creating the ancient brew. The strange beer-wine-mead hybrid, which involves both barley and muscat grapes, is now a regular part of Dogfish's line.
Sure, Dogfish can make some stunning "straight" beers, such as the hop-laden, slightly bitter 60 Minute IPA, but it's more fun when Calagione tweaks the formula, throwing apricots into an India Pale Ale to create ApriHop or flavoring a brown Belgian-style ale with green raisins and dubbing the curious result Raison D'Etre.
Sometimes Dogfish Head's offerings veer pretty far into gimmickry -- Liquor de Malt, a fortified beer made with red, white and blue varieties of corn, is sold in 40-ounce bottles that come with a custom Dogfish Head paper bag -- but Dogfish products are always interesting, especially with Calagione's penchant for tongue-puckering hops and high alcohol content.
In recent years, Dogfish Head has evolved from a brand fetishized in beer-centric bars into a gourmet label found in trendy restaurants such as Matchbox and David Greggory. But Dogfish Head isn't content to just make guest appearances; the Rehoboth Beach brewpub turned 10 this summer, and the company has set its sights fully on the Washington market, opening a restaurant and bar in Gaithersburg in late September.
The Dogfish Head Alehouse (800 W. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg; 301-963-4847) isn't a brewpub -- it'll leave production to the folks on the other side of the bay -- but it's the next best thing: a place that focuses on Dogfish Head products and serves them the way they were meant to be served.
I've had pints of the 90 Minute India Pale Ale at bars in Washington, and it has become one of my favorite draft beers, if a little hard to find. At the Alehouse, though, the 90 Minute arrives in a snifter, and it's an entirely different experience. As I begin to take a sip, I feel as though my allergies are going to explode: I smell summery hop fields and wet, freshly cut grass in the head. Hints of citrus mingle with a light, spicy bitterness in my mouth, but this beer is so smooth and so drinkable that, unless you look at the brewer's notes on a chalkboard behind the bar, you'd never guess that it packs a wallop. This beer weighs in at 9 percent alcohol. As much as I'd love to have another, I'm driving.
There are usually seven or eight beers on draft and a few featured bottles at the Gaithersburg watering hole, a two-story restaurant that sits near the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Die-hard beer geeks may want to call first to see what's on before heading up, as the specialty beers come and go with alarming frequency. When I stopped by with a couple of friends last week, there was no Raison D'Etre (let alone the high-test version dubbed Raison D'Extra), no English-style Burton Baton, no fortified Immort Ale. I'd been looking forward to another glass of the Midas Touch, which I'd first sampled at the 9:30 club, but it was available only in bottles. Even the autumnal Punkin' Ale, which I'd thought about sampling on a previous visit, was gone.
The problem, says Joe Hospital, managing partner of Dogfish Head Alehouse, is the Dogfish brewery's limited production runs. "Some of these beers are seasonal or limited editions," he explains. "We had the Punkin' Ale, but that ran out, so we got the 120 Minute IPA. [That's the bigger, badder, hoppier brother of the 90 Minute.] We blew through that. We took everything [Dogfish Head] had and blew through it in three weeks.
"We'll get down to seven, then we'll get back to nine. It's our plan for there to be eight to 10 [beers] on [draft]."
High-volume sales, Hospital says, are why that 90 Minute sparkles like it just came out of the taps in Rehoboth. One beer that's on pouring now but might not be for long is the WorldWide Stout, which checks in at a mind-blowing 18 percent alcohol. The tasting notes in the menu suggest this might be best enjoyed as an after-dinner beer, but we tried it as an appetizer. It, too, arrives in a snifter and has a rich, sophisticated blend of flavors that leaves us pontificating like wine critics, pondering the caramel, coffee and chocolate notes under the rich, toasty malt. (I can understand if you don't look forward to the idea of "chocolate notes" in your stout, but trust me on this one.)
Behind the bar, under lock and key, is the vintage beer cooler, with bottles that age like fine wine. "Sam's been cellaring these beers for years," Hospital says. "It's an idea that's out of the mainstream, with all the emphasis on fresh beers." Thanks to high alcohol content, selected Dogfishes will actually improve with age, mellowing and smoothing. Of course, like a collector with a '51 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, you'll pay for the privilege of tasting one of these beauties: about $8 for one 12-ounce beer that has been around for a year or two, and as much as $18 or more for 750-milliliter bottles of vintage Pangea or three-year-old WorldWide Stout. (After laying around, that monster climbs up to 23 percent alcohol.) We decided we had to try a cellared beer, and settled on a two-year-old bottle of Immort Ale. We'd hoped to compare it with the current vintage, but the Alehouse didn't have any on hand, and you can't get beer to go, so we decided to forgo the research and just enjoyed the bottle, which seemed richer and more rounded than "fresh" Immort, possibly because of the maple syrup used in brewing.
Of course, not everyone is into specialist beers. Grab a sampler, which includes tastes of the Shelter Pale Ale and the rather bland Lawnmower Light and see if there's anything you like. Those who are still not convinced can grab a bottle of Miller Lite or Corona, while fans of the harder stuff can order cocktails made with Dogfish Jin or Rum, which the company began distilling three years ago. The Alehouse doesn't yet have a list of infused Dogfish Blue Hen vodkas like you'd find at the original brewpub in Rehoboth, but the bartender told me they're working on it.
Hospital and his three partners tried to get into Silver Spring before taking over the current space but couldn't work out a deal. It's Silver Spring's loss and northern Montgomery County's gain. "It's so nice to go to a bar in Gaithersburg that's not a chain," one friend says, settling down with a pint of Indian Brown Ale. The decor is understated -- wood, old prints and framed black-and-white photographs, Dogfish Head logos -- but there's a generous amount of room around the bar, which comes in handy on Thursday or Friday evenings. (Weekday crowds are easily explained by $3 happy hour pints, down from the usual $4.75.) Smokers congregate on a patio with wooden-slat beach chairs. Upstairs is really for dining, with numerous booths and a small private dining room. Huge couches that wrap around corners could double as their own private party spaces, easily holding six.
It would be irresponsible to talk about high-octane beers and not mention the food, which is pretty good. As in Rehoboth, the stars of the show are wood-fired personal pizzas, which take their names from Ernest Hemingway short stories, including "A Canary for One" and "The Sea Change." Don't overlook the daily specials, which can include a very good overstuffed Reuben or a New York strip steak sandwich.
The Dogfish Head in Rehoboth is noted for its live music, bringing in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Vic Chesnutt and Last Train Home, and Hospital says that this branch will add more entertainment in coming weeks. "We've got a couple of groups that play at Dogfish Head in Rehoboth coming in," he says. "We'll have some music in December. By the beginning of the year, we'll be into a pretty regular schedule."
More beer-centric events are also on the agenda. A beer and cheese tasting with Calagione sold out almost immediately, and a bartender tells me that the alehouse may be bringing in the Randall, one of Calagione's more interesting inventions. It's nothing more than a tube filled with fresh hop leaves placed between the tap and your glass. As the beer runs through, it picks up oil from the leaves, creating a hop overload on your palette. This is, after all, a brewery that doesn't mind going to extremes.