Delaware Today magazine 302 Reads: Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton and owner Sam Calagione develop an all-Delaware beer made from local peaches and pears
Peach Buzz: The first all-Delaware beer uses local peaches, pears and a secret ingredient. Like everything else Dogfish Head does, it’s more than just a beer.
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Here’s the back story:
Sam is tired of the lack of cooperation in solving the nation’s financial crisis and creating the Main Street businesses the government claims will save our economy. So Sam, head of a Main Street business—albeit of a different stripe—decides to pull together local entities on Delaware Native Ale. Dogfish Head could procure three of the four main ingredients—water, barley and hops—locally, but there was no known native brewing yeast, so it had to find one.
Before Dogfish Head, no modern commercial brewery, as far as anyone knows, had ever made a beer with wild yeast, according to quality tech Katrinka Housley, who manages the 30-plus varieties used at Dogfish Head. Of the ingredients in beer, yeast, the white haze you see on grapes and other plants, is the X factor in the flavor. Of the hundreds of known yeasts, a fraction of all varieties, a few dozen well understood types are common in beer making.
Irish ale yeast softens Irish stout. Thames Valley ale yeast is often used in bitter-style British brews. So if one wants to make a beer that tastes like Delaware, he needs an indigenous yeast. Inspired by a recent adventure in collecting a wild yeast in Egypt, Sam decides he’s going to try to harvest one here.
He emails his idea to Markell, who thinks it sounds cool, so he kicks it over to DEDO secretary Alan Levin, who also thinks it’s pretty neat, then he sends it to Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee, who likes the idea, too, so he reaches out to his colleague Tom Evans at the UD Agricultural Extension, a big Dogfish aficionado, who tells associate Nancy Gregory, who thinks the project sounds fun, so she helps collect yeasts from peach skins at Bobby Fifer’s orchard in Wyoming, then isolates a few strains that are likely to produce a good flavor while Jason Beale and his colleagues at historic Abbott’s Mill grind the barley—which is the first time Abbott’s has actually milled anything in nearly five decades, and everyone there thinks that’s super cool—as the Delaware Biotechnology Institute identifies the ordained yeast by its DNA (as in Delaware Native Ale) while the brewmasters perfect a recipe so they can get a good batch made in time for the big debut event.
It’s the kind of effort, collaboration, creativity, pace and success that has made Sam and his self-described cast of “freaks and weirdos” legends in the beer world.
Brewing yeast is a bit of a crap shoot. All anyone knows about an untested variety is that it will eat sugars to create alcohol and carbonation during fermentation. They don’t know how it will affect the flavor of a beer until they try it.
To illustrate the point, a few months before the revolution in Cairo, Sam and Dogfish Head brewmaster Floris Delée were in Egypt, taping an episode of the Discovery Channel series “Brew Masters.” This particular episode is all about yeast.
That Sam should star in a TV series is, by now, no surprise. Since a poorly executed publicity event almost 15 years ago, when Dogfish Head was the smallest commercial brewery in the country, the place has become a media fave. It started when Sam rowed the first beer “exported” from Delaware across the bay to Cape May, N.J.—beer he made by hand delivered in a boat he made by hand. Practically no one showed up for his landing, except, as fate would have it, a reporter for a beer publication.
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