(10.2% American make from a 650cl bottle) This superb ale is the product of a collaboration between two of America’s most prominent craft brewers: Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada. As per the bottle, this beer is dedicated to those craft brewers who have fought against the tide of light lagers, and struck out on their own to defend taste. The craft brewers of America who now number nearly 1600 (the most since prohibition) according to the Brewer’s Association brew in both collaboration and competition with each other, but always against the giants of the industry. This beer stands as an excellent example of what can happen when we work together.
This beer is a symphony of taste. To compliment that it has an amazing website and splendid art dedicated to it as well. Life and Limb pours a dark brown porter or cola colour with a mocha head which stood about an inch until dissipating to a covering. When you put your nose to the glass you first can pick up the roasted barley and a light caramel smell with a high alcohol sweetness along with light notes of chocolate and syrup. On the sip it has a smooth mouthfeel with a slight bubble. The flavour has notes of chocolate and a hint of syrup, but well-balanced throughout. Overall a very drinkable and gorgeous dark strong beer. A rarity, and a gift not to be passed upon.
The make – what is behind the Life and Limb of this beer?
With the craft brewing brains of Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada involved one would have high hopes for this beer. If any of the Dogfish Head’s other extreme beers can be used as examples, then there are bound to be some interesting ingredients. So, what exactly went into making this fine beer? According to the bottle:
LIFE – this living ale is naturally carbonated to enhance complexity, refinement, and to encourage aging.
Living ale? Naturally carbonated? As previously noted in my review of Philadelphia Brewing Company’s Walt Whit, a beer which is ‘living’ means that it is bottle conditioned. There remains active yeasts within the bottle which continue to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. This allows the beer to continue to mature within the bottle, but it also adds natural carbonation to the beer. When you pour a bottle conditioned beer slowly into a glass you will see the residual proteins come out last as the darker sections of foam. It is a matter of preference whether one leaves these in the bottle or pours into the glass.
In the UK, CAMRA has devised a labeling scheme to identify bottle conditioned ales. Not all ales which are cask conditioned are bottled with yeast to create ‘living’ ales. Unfortunately many are pasteurized and filtered ultimately affecting the freshness of the taste. According to CAMRA,
Real ale in a bottle is unpasteurised and is not artificially carbonated. It is a natural live product which contains yeast for a slow secondary fermentation in the bottle. This process provides wonderful fresh flavours and a pleasant, natural effervescence.
As mentioned in my review for Meantime’s Coffee Porter, it is important to be label aware. So the next time in your local shop or while purchasing British beers abroad you should look out for the Real Ale stamp on your favourite brew. To my knowledge, there is not a similar labeling scheme in the States.
While opinions differ, I prefer cask and bottle conditioned ales which are served without artificial carbonation. When on a brewery tour last summer at Lancaster Brewery Company, I had to take pause when the very pleasant brewer guiding us explained to me what happened after fermentation. “Here is where we filter the beer (cringe!) and that is where the beer is pumped to be artificially carbonated (gasp!)”. I interrupted him to ask why they carbonate their beer, to which he said “Well, you carbonate soda and cask beer is far more complicated to care for”. I know it’s now just common practice, and to enjoy what many see as ‘flat, warm’ English ales seems unappealing. However, I find the often overly chilled and artificially carbonated beers sacrifice some of their taste and depth of character to this interference. But I digress.
Here are a few tips for the care of bottle conditioned beers according to the fabled professor of beer, Michael Jackson (not to be confused with the other also deceased MJ):
- “Never refrigerate the beer, as this will prevent the yeast from working.
- Keep it somewhere dark, not too damp or musty, with a cool and reasonably consistent temperature.
- If it has a real cork, lay it on its side, in a wine rack.
- When you are ready to serve it, carry it gently, so that the yeast sediment is not shaken.” (adapted from his FAQ site 2011)
LIMB – for the birch and maple trees, whose syrup gives this ale its unique flavor and symbolizes the collaboration between Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head.
What is often taken for granted in bottle conditioned beer is the level of carbonation, which like the rest of the brewing process is an exact science. We assume that a lager will have an abundance of bubbles while an ale will have comparatively little. The amount of fermentable sugars and yeast in the bottle conditioned beers dictate the level of carbonation, and must be well regulated. Interestingly, the temperature of the beer as it ferments also greatly affects the level of carbonation. Case in point, if you think of lagers and their colder fermenting temperatures versus the more warmly fermented ales. Technically speaking, Northern Brewer Home Brew Supply puts it as the following,
“Quite simply, CO2 is soluble in a solution in an inverse relationship to the temperature of the solution. What this means is that the colder the liquid is the more CO2 can be held in solution. This is very important when you get to calculating your volumes of CO2 because the colder your finished beverage is the more residual CO2 will be in solution” (retrieved 2011 from Northern Brewery’s Advanced Bottle Conditioning).
When using tree syrup during secondary fermentation (bottle conditioning), the darker the colour the more flavour the beer will have. For Life and Limb, there were two different types of tree syrup used in the making of this unique beer. First, maple syrup was used in the boil. This syrup came from the Dogfish Head founder Sam Cagalione’s family farm in Massachusetts. Birch tree syrup from Alaska was then used during the bottle conditioning. To the brewer’s knowledge this is the first beer made with birch syrup.
A word to the wise for anyone dealing with bottle conditioning in home brewing. According to Home Brew Wiki, there are 3 things to watch out for when creating bottle conditioned beers to protect yourself from ‘bottle bombs’.
- Bottling the beer to early: if you bottle the beer before the primary fermentation has finished you run the risk of the beer continuing in its fermentation process and over-carbonating. The solution is always check your final gravity to ensure that fermentation has ceased.
- Over-priming: if you add too much sugar to the bottle, the yeast could continue to produce carbon dioxide to the point of over-carbonation.
- Infection: a bacteria could ferment the sugars which the beer yeast strain could not ferment. (adapted from Home Brew Wiki Bottle Bomb retrieved 2011)
All of these could add up to some poorly made beer, or worse bottle bombs!
Dogfish Head Brewery – truly the small wonder
Sam Calagione is the unelected charismatic leader of the craft brewing movement. He embodies the entrepreneurial spirit of American small business as he battles it out for shelf space against the behemoths of MillerCoors and AB In Bev who will pull out every dirty trick they can to stop people like Sam.
The Dogfish Head brewery was founded by Sam in 1995 as the first brewpub in the state of Delaware. Just like Sierra Nevada, it is run as a family business with Sam’s wife, Mariah, working as the Vice President of the company. While he is from Massachusetts, she is from Delaware hence why the brewery is based there. However, the name has its origin in where Sam used to spend his childhood summers in Maine, “Local legend has it that Dogfish Head, Maine is named Dogfish Head because when the lobstermen put out their traps near this particular point, they usually ended up with more dogfish (a small shark) than lobsters”. He has quipped that he did not want to go with a geographically tied name like Boston Brewery Company or for that matter the Philadelphia Brewing Company.
When they first started, they were the smallest commercial brewery in America. Working on a 3 15 gallon barrels heated on propane burners, they were brewing day and night to keep the beer flowing for what would turn out to be a prosperous brewpub. While this might not have been the most well thought out business plan, it did allow Sam the flexibility to experiment with different ingredients and flavours. With great pride they still brew to the same basic formula now as they did when they first started: on average each Dogfish Head beer has 6 ingredients and an alcoholic content of 9%. Strong beers with unique flavour profiles turned out to be a winning combination.
Dogfish has pioneered the idea that we need to look outside the conditioning we have received on what is beer. Isn’t beer supposed to be a light lager which ‘tastes great but is less filling’? Frankly, no. Through their recreations of historic beers such as Midas Touch, they have reverse engineered beers recipes from the dust of tombs. Working with the University of Pennsylvania, they have brought to life recipes which were the drinks of kings. Buried within their tombs for millenia, these unique beverages are being reproduced and are causing us to question what exactly is ‘normal’ beer.
As a part of their marketing, Sam professes that the proof is in the bottle. Through hosting events, giving talks, starring in Beer Wars, and then going so far as to secure a reality TV show on the Discovery Chanel called Brew Master’s he is practically the prophet of the craft beer movement.
Sam has a simple recipe for success: be passionate about life and what you do with it. Dogfish head’s motto, ‘Off-centered ales for off-centered people‘ stresses that through individuality and innovation one can find both happiness and success through your passion.
Sierra Nevada Brewery
A family run business since 1980, Sierra Nevada entered a barren landscape of American craft brewing. Co-founder and president Ken Grossman was running a home brewing kit shop along with being an avid homebrewer himself. The beer market at the time was even more heavily dominated by the Anheiser Busch, Miller and Coors then it is now. But thankfully for all of us all craft beer lovers, Sierra Nevada fought back against the tide of bland, big business lager.
Along with co-founder Paul Camusi, Ken set up what would become one of the premier American craft breweries. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was their first beer, and is still their flagship. For those of us living in London, this is currently available at Waitrose and is highly recommended. After the release of this hallmark American craft beer, demand continued to grow and greatly exceed production capacity. After several enlargements, the brewery is now outputting 800k barrels a year.
It is not only the phenomenal growth within a virtually non-existent market which is impressive, but also the way in which they have accomplished this feat. The company has not only grown exponentially but also sustainably constantly setting the bar for environmental excellence. This type of growth which places ethics before profit, and beer before business is the bedrock of this organisation. Here a few of their accomplishments which deserve much more coverage than this:
- Fuel Cells: The brewery installed one of the largest fuel cell systems in the country with 4 systems producing 1.2 megawatts of energy. This system is then paired with their solar panels to provide nearly all of their electrical needs and minimise their environmental output.
- Solar Panels: Precedent setting once more, they have installed one of the largest solar arrays in the US. The 1.4 megawatts of energy which they create with their solar panels plus their fuel cell output helps them towards their goal of 100% sustainable energy production.
- Recycling: In the latest information available, in 2007 they were able to recycle 98.2% of their waste – how much do you manage? They have even created a cycle for their waste with the local cattle industry whereby their spent yeast is fed to the cows, who in turn delivery the cow manure compost to fertilise the brewery’s hop field.
- Transportation: Not stopping at their brewery’s doorstep, they have even moved into sustainable transport. While utilising bio-diesel to power their local fleet from the vegetable oil recycled from their adjoining restaurant, they were also the first company in the US to buy a hybrid electric truck in 2009. They have also developed a system of utilising the rails to bring in their grain and also distribute their beers from coast to coast.
Pioneers in both the craft brewing movement as well as environmentally sustainable practices, Sierra Nevada is worthy of praise for putting taste and sustainability before profit.
Life and Limb: a dedication to craft brewers
While the big guys have stripped the landscape of taste, the craft brewers are fighting to re-introduce it, and as the figures prove people are loving it. Brewers like Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada have successfully altered the beer market in America to the point where the large multinational brewers have introduced their own fake microbreweries and sub-brands designed to confuse and confound consumers. For example, have you ever sipped on a Blue Moon wheat beer? Not bad, but owned by Coors. Clever marketing has delivered you what one might think a craft beer when it’s actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The success of the craft brewers to introduce unique styles and innovation which Life and Limb represents has been no easy feat when you consider that over 90% of what’s sold is a light lager with little to no taste. The differentiation between the massive multinational conglomerates like Anheiser Busch (AB In Bev) or MillerCoors (a joint venture between SAB Miller and MolsonCoors) is not at all about what is in the bottle. It has long been battled out through their enormous advertising budgets.
Through consolidations in the market and the squeezing out of competition by the aforementioned multinationals, the American beer drinker has been conditioned for decades to drink light lager. Now, with 1600 brothers in arms, the craft brewer’s market share might be minuscule but sales are growing. Compared to the profits of the big guys, craft beer sales have continued to grow despite significant drops in overall sales within the market. According to the Brewer’s Association craft beer sales increased in terms of retail dollars by 10.1% in 2008 (5.9% by volume), 10.3% in 2009 (7.2% by volume), and 12% (9% by volume) in the first half of 2010. As compared to the overall beer market which saw a decline of 2.2% in sales in 2009.
So while still a David, they have made the Goliath rethink their game. But most importantly the craft brewers have offered us something we nearly lost decades ago: taste, innovation and a sense of individuality. Life and Limb is a delicious beer, and is rightly dedicated to all the craft brewers out there. As per the bottle, “We are proud to share our Life and Limb with the thousands of other branches who collectively comprise the craft-brewing family tree. Sip slowly with friends and loved ones; savor – because one could do better than be a swigger of birches”. So, as always: be aware of what is in your pint, the ramifications of your purchases, and cheers to something that matters.