Dogfish Head, Sojourn or So What?

Dogfish Head Brewery, in Milton Delaware, is the sort of place that inspires slavish devotion in its customers.  The good folks there not only produce a broad range of stunningly good beers, they do so with a palpable sense of delight and an impish sense of humor.  (They bill themselves as makers of, “Off-centered stuff for off-centered people”.)

The brewery and its amiable owner, Sam Calagione, were the subject of “Brew Masters”, a recent series on the Discovery Channel as well as being key players in a documentary film about the beer industry called, “Beer Wars”. Watching the episodes of Brew Masters while consuming Dogfish beers became a routine for myself and (customers and good friends) Robert, the recently-ousted Mayor of Wine Gourmet (according to social-networking site FourSquare), and his lovely girlfriend Vanessa ( . . . or is it Verushka?) who, in all honesty, is a bigger fan of Sam than she is of the beer.

Every week the three of us would gather, pour, and get involved in the stories and personalities on the screen.  Every week as well, we’d speculate on how much fun it’d be to go to the brewery and see it for ourselves. Eventually, we committed to a plan of driving up early on a Friday and staying in the area through Sunday and visiting both the brewery in Milton and the Alehouse in nearby Rehoboth Beach.  We set a date and pinky-swore on it.

The appointed Friday morning came early. The night before I had tapped the face of the digital alarm until it read, “UnGodly”, toggled it to “on” and then went to bed. The alarm began banging away at 5am, demanding, as is the way of alarms, that I drag my tired behind from the comfort of the sheets and tend to its silence.

I just want go on-record here.  5am is an hour made for those whose honest toil produces sweat.  It’s an hour familiar to farmhands, fishermen, and the day-laborers that congregate at big-box handyman stores. It’s not for the soft and foggy-headed, like me.  So, why so early?  Vanessa ( . . . or is it Valerie?) had secured for us a 2pm appointment for a tour of the brewery and we had calculated with the cruel algebra of travel, that, if we were to make that time, we’d need to be wheels-rolling by 6am.  So, sleepily I made sandwiches, coffee, and hard-boiled eggs and threw in some cookies and small boxes of orange juice to sustain us.  As the GPS indicated, the trip was in excess of 300 miles and we were not expecting to stop, except as nature may occasionally demand.

We were now a party of four, as I had invited along a woman of new and devoted acquaintance and we gathered, pre-dawn, bleary-eyed and with far more baggage than a 2-day trip should warrant but confident that most any contingency, short of apocalypse, had been accounted for.  In the days leading up to our happy journey, I had contacted Josh, a Dogfish mucky-muck whom I’d once met in a beerily official capacity.  I told him of our upcoming pilgrimage and asked if there were any arrangements that could be made to, perhaps, “enhance” the experience of the tour and pub visit.  I was hoping for some kind of code word or secret handshake, but the magic words turned out to be simply, “Kristin” and “John”.  Our ducks, if not our stars, were aligned.

As mentioned earlier, the ex-mayor and I had been waxing rhapsodic about Dogfish Head products for many months.  Though neither of us would admit it, we each harbored a Wonka-esque fantasy of the Dogfish Brewery, imagining ourselves frolicking between the vats, stopping occasionally to tilt our mouths under open valves of free-running beer and diving into overflowing piles of sticky hops flowers.  As we knew it certainly must be, the reality turned out to be a bit more pedestrian but still well worth the trip. We ran through three states and, because of a small argument with the co-pilot, also through the heart of Washington DC.

We arrived in Milton, a little after 1pm, with creaking knees and crumbs in our laps. The parking lot was filled with the cars of the faithful.  We passed several folks, on their way back to their cars, hushed and aglow with their experience, toting cases of freshly-brewed beer and gift-shop t-shirts.

The building was just as we’d seen in the episodes of Brew Masters, low, clean of line, functional, and relatively indistinct.  Just outside, however, standing sentinel-like and with great distinction is the “Steampunk Tree House”.  This 40 ft. tall metal sculpture takes the form of a tree-house perched on a steel-plate trunk and cradled by open-frame branches.  It is at once, organic and industrial.  It is beautiful, terrible and wholly compelling. It looks like something HG Wells might have designed, had he been taking LSD.

The Steampunk Tree House outside Dogfish Head Brewery

Designed and created by artist Sean Orlando and the 5-Ton Crane Arts Group of Oakland, California, the tree house debuted at the 2007 Burning Man Festival and went on to be re-constructed at several other gatherings.  In 2009, Sam Calagione convinced those with custody of the monster that it ought to have a permanent home and that he had just the spot for it right outside the front door of the brewery. They agreed.  There may have been Dogfish products involved.

We paused on the way inside to “ooohh” and ogle the tree house because, well, there’s no way not to.  It really demands some reaction. After a few minutes, the gravity of the brewery overcame the spell of the tree house and in we went.  The gift shop, where the congregation gathers prior to the scheduled tour, is chock-a-block with beer and Dogfish doodads in the form of T-shirts, frisbees, glassware, and many other items up to, and including, a 12” vinyl LP of Sam Calagione and his brewmaster, calling themselves “Pain Relievaz” and, attacking your ears with beer-related Gangsta-rap. I can only believe that to embrace this item, one must count one’s self among the hardest core of fans.

While the others milled about taking in the Dogfish extravagance of it all, I made my way to the counter.  A nice young lady stood behind the counter and smiled helpfully at me.
“I’m supposed to see Kristin.”, I said.
“I’m Kristin.” she replied enthusiastically.
I told her who I was and she told me that she wasn’t expecting me till tomorrow but that it didn’t matter.  I was both perplexed and relieved. Simultaneously.

We had been cautioned by e-mail before arriving that open-toed shoes were verboten as we would be in an industrial space.  We arrived appropriately shod.  We were then issued protective eyewear.  I assume to prevent drunken eyes in the event of a splash.  Soon the tour started and we were ushered into the heart of the brewery. It was an explosion of pipes and vats.  Everywhere silver pipes carried water and wort and goodness knows what else to and fro.  My Wonka fantasy didn’t seem so far off.  Though I could see that there’d be no frolicking, I did half expect creepy little orange men to walk by, pushing wheelbarrows of hops.

The tour was a shortened version due to ongoing construction at the brewery but Kristin was excellent and the group was properly agog.  We were shown not just the current operation but artifacts of its crude, though clever, beginnings.  (Apparently Sam sorted out a system for “continuous hopping” that involved a 5-gallon plastic bucket with holes cut at the bottom and one of those magnetic/electronic football games, fondly remembered by those of us who grew up in the sixties.)

We finished the tour, returned the protective and queued up to get what we’d really all come for, free samples.  We were limited to one 3 oz. pour from each of the four beers they had tapped for the thirst and amusement of the pilgrims but they were spectacular. We started off with a rich, full-bodied Raison d’Etre with a distinct character of raisins and figs and then moved on to Hellhound On My Ale, a tribute beer to bluesman Robert Johnson – very hoppy and kissed with lemon.  Next in line was Black & Blue, an ale brewed with black raspberries and blueberries and we finished with their stunning brown ale, Palo Santo Marron, a beer that packs copious flavor, and a 12% alcohol-by-volume wallop.

The tote board of available brews at Dogfish Head

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately for me, my traveling companion (she of the new and devoted acquaintance) does not drink beer.  Though it is a shocking deficit in her character, she is amply compensated by other charms. Still, she had beer samples which she would not consume and so, I felt obliged.  Thus began my descent into blissful inebriation.  The rest of the day would be spent as if I had wandered out of some Hellish desert of sobriety and stumbled into an oasis of beer.

Before we left, Kristin found us and treated us to a set of t-shirts for the gals and ball caps for the guys, a small perk of my position as a retailer of Dogfish products.  (Thank you Dogfish.)  My head now protected from the drizzle, we returned to the car, a warm and persistent fog beginning to settle around my brain. (Relax, I wasn’t driving.)

We drove the seven or eight miles to Rehoboth Beach and found the house we’d rented for the weekend. It was small but comfortable and just a block from the sand and sea. We agreed that we would go to the Dogfish Head Brewpub for dinner (and more beer) and then left to explore the nearby ocean boardwalk.

It was just the kind of beach experience I love: breezy, drizzly and chilly. (My friends have taken to referring to me as Lestat for my well-known aversion to sunshine.)  But I was alone in my enjoyment and the weather drove us off the boardwalk and into a bar.  Seated inside, we could sit and look directly out to sea and, of course, enjoy the local brew (Dogfish!) on tap.

By a generous application of beer, I brought a quick reversal to the oncoming state of irksome sobriety brought perilously close by the chill.  I probably should have paused my consumption after the point at which I got into a friendly argument with a local about whether or not the silhouette on the horizon was a barge, as he explained, or an island, as my brain insisted it must be.  His longtime residency and, therefore, certain awareness about whether or not there was an island where we were looking didn’t faze me in the least.  Only as the “island” was observed to move a considerable distance over time did I relent and grudgingly accept it as a barge.

Dinner time came and, still pleasantly floating, we taxied over to the Brewpub.  It was crowded and there was a waiting list for tables.  I gave her the new code word, “John”.  She assured me she would let him know we were here and that we would be called for a table as soon as one was ready.  Robert and I pushed our way to the bar hoping that among the offerings would be “Johnny Cask”, an oak-aged IPA whose quality was the stuff of whispered legend and which was only available occasionally at the Brewpub.  To our disappointment, it was not on tap.  They did however have Randall-the-Enamel-Animal set up.  Randall is not a beer but rather a device that is fitted to a tap and filled with a flavoring agent such as hops or fruit and then the beer is drawn through the agent and delivered, flavored, into your glass.  Today it was attached to their 90-minute IPA and filled with hops.  We ordered.  We quaffed.  We ordered again.

The buzz in my brain was now quite loud.  We were called for our table and we sat and ordered delicious pub fare.  John, my secret contact, found us and was solicitous of our good time.  I assured him, with a bit of slur for emphasis, that we were having a wonderful time.  Our food arrived soon after and so did complimentary beers.  Robert and I were served tall glasses of World Wide Stout, a heavily alcoholic brew at approximately 20%.  I am told that I downed it as though it were iced tea.

I vaguely remember having something in the hamburger line to eat.  My world, which had this night been all bright lights and party noises, began to seem distant and disconnected, like I was observing it from the bottom of a pipe.  Though my brain was stomping hard on the brakes, it was too late – like Thelma and Louise I was headed for the edge of the abyss and there was too much momentum to keep me from getting there.  I looked at my companion, fixed her with a steely, though somehow unfocused, look and said, “I have to go back to the house.   . . . Right now.”   She raised her eyebrows, looked at me more carefully – and then called me a taxi.  We left our friends and went home.  It was 9pm.

The next morning my tongue was thick and fuzzy and my throbbing brain, which I was sure would look like a bowl of clam chowder should anyone bother to remove the top of my skull and peer in, stubbornly refused to fire synapses.  Perhaps it was just otherwise engaged in re-establishing routes that would bypass the masses of cells I had killed off the previous evening.

“Did I pay the bill?” I asked, squinting.  To my combined irritation and relief, they assured me that I had.  I enjoyed a breakfast of coffee, Excedrin, and regret.  I swore to myself that morning that I would begin a new life, one of temperance.

By five that afternoon, I had jettisoned temperance and substituted the word, “moderation”.  By eight, I had scratched out moderation and toasted my new credo,  – excess.