Dogfish Head Bets on Sour Ales with New Brands, Line of Wild, Barrel-Aged Beers

News by | October 5, 2018
Photos courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

During Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s annual distributor summit outlining its plans for the upcoming year, the Delaware brewery positioned its popular SeaQuench Ale as a dual flagship alongside its popular workhorse, 60 Minute IPA. It’s part of a substantial new focus on sours for the company, whose breakthrough Gose-Kölsh-Berliner Weisse hybrid made with sea salt and black limes has become the fastest-growing beer in the brewery’s history since debuting in 2016. Light in color, bitterness, and strength (at 10 IBU and 4.9 percent ABV), the brand represents a stark contrast to 90 Minute IPA, which helped the 23-year-old brewery make a name for itself in 2001.

“Everyone thinks IPA is this juggernaut—it is in terms of scale—but on a smaller base sour is actually growing faster,” explains founder Sam Calagione. A recent Nielsen study conducted for the brewery of the fastest growing craft beer style groups found that the sour category grew 61 percent in dollar sales over the past year, more than quadrupling the growth of India Pale Ale at 11 percent. While sours still command less than 1 percent of overall craft beer sales (compared to IPA’s 32.7 percent), the trend, paired with the meteoric success of SeaQuench in the sour beer marketplace, was enough to motivate Dogfish Head to prioritize the category for 2019 and beyond.

“The sour style has the ability to bring so many people over from the fast-growing adult beverage categories compared to IPAs,” Calagione adds. “SeaQuench Ale can appeal to a margarita drinker, or a mineraly Pinot Gris drinker, just as easily as it can appeal to a beer geek.” And so, next summer, in a follow up to SeaQuench, Dogfish Head will debut the vibrant red SuperEIGHT, a second kettle sour made with eight “super-foody” ingredients including mango, kiwi, prickly pear, and quinoa.

While kettle sours have brought Dogfish Head explosive growth, Calagione and his leadership team have invested in the category at large by embarking on a series of collaboration projects with sour-focused breweries, and made a six-figure commitment to a dedicated sour and wild ale cellar at the Milton production facility. KnottyBits, the first beer in its new line of bottle-conditioned, wood-aged wild series, dubbed Wooden… it be nice, was released at the Milton tasting room in late September. The company sold 1,258 bottles of the wild ale aged on rhubarb and sweet and sour cherries in one day.

Pointing to early brands like the wood-aged peach Lambic Festina Lente (2003), the Berliner Weisse-inspired Festina Pêche (2007) and Isabelle Proximus (2008), a collaboration sour with The Lost Abbey, Russian River, Allagash, and Avery, Calagione describes the focus on sours as a return to the brewery’s roots rather than a change in direction. “Festina Pêche was one of the first beers where we were like, holy shit, we could really build some volume [with] sour beers,” he recalls. “This new era of Dogfish Head’s sour and wild program is just a continuation of a program we started 15 years ago.”

Roughly 18 percent of the brewery’s output in 2019 will be sour brands, says brewmaster Mark Safarik, who helms the new brewhouse with brewing supervisor Bill Marchi. Kettle sours like SeaQuench and SuperEIGHT will make up 99.8 percent of those 54,000 barrels, meaning the wild and sour program is still very much a niche project. “This program was really born out of a passion project,” says Safarik.

Two more Wooden… it be nice beers are scheduled to appear in 2018: Wet Hop American Summer, a wild ale dry hopped with wet hops, and Eastern Seaboard, a wild ale brewed with beach plums and blackberries.

Next year, the brewery plans to release six beers in the series, beginning with Ouvert Operation, an open-fermentation Saison with Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces, in late winter. “Something we’re experimenting with is open fermentation, and the ability of the Saison yeast to convert sugar into alcohol without the stress and pressure of the tank,” explains Marchi. “It does some pretty interesting things when it’s not inhibited by the tank top.”

Other beers in the works include Raison Brett’ra, a Brett version of its classic Raison d’Etre aged in bourbon barrels with Timpson raisins, and Vigne Sauvage, a wine-beer hybrid made with Voignier grapes, elderflower, and sweet woodruff that’s a modern interpretation of a German May wine.

Plus, continuing a tradition of collaboration that began a decade ago with Isabelle Proximus, Safarik and Marchi recently brewed two collaboration beers at The Bruery in Placentia, Calif., that are now aging in oak fouders—one with wild yeast and hops (This is Ridiculous), and one with verjus rouge, a vinegar-like juice made from pressing immature wine grapes (Mrs. This is Ridiculous). A third beer (Kisses Betwixt Mr. and Mrs. Ridiculous), a blend of the two fouders, will be released alongside the other two in late spring.

“In 2011, when we last collaborated with Dogfish Head, sour and wild beers were a niche, high-end product that only the very well educated craft beer consumer knew about,” recalls The Bruery founder Patrick Rue. “Today, sour and wild beer is a much wider category. In addition to high-end, barrel-aged examples that can take years to make, there are now approachable sour and wild beers that appeal to a broader audience. Every year I see more casual craft beer drinkers becoming more and more familiar with sour beer.”

Calagione’s bullishness on sours was apparent at the distributor summit as he described his creative promotional plans for SuperEIGHT and his vision for the future.

Times have changed and his company has hardly sat still in the intervening years. Next December Dogfish Head will resurrect Festina Lente, the brewery’s original sour ale, a beer that retailers sent back when it first appeared. This time, however, it will be brewed with ingredients sourced entirely from Delaware: barley, wheat, peaches, and hops. “It’s a tribute to what kicked off this program years ago, and [we’re excited] to bring that back and hope to do that justice,” says Marchi.