Hophead: Too Much Of A Very Good Thing

Sometimes too much to drink is barely enough. --Mark Twain (and with Dogfish Head's super-strong beers, barely enough really is enough)

When I was a kid, my Papa Salfi had a framed poster in a guest bathroom from which I first learned about the effects of alcohol. It had a numbered series of lines on which he had signed his full name. By the seventh or eighth, his signature had devolved into an illegible scrawl. The tenth was just a crooked line. Printed across the bottom was the moral: "You can't control a car when you drink. You can't even control a pen."

My notes from last night's Dogfish Head Brewery tasting at the Flying Saucer in Addison reminded me of that. Thank God I didn't get behind the wheel.

It was a vertical tasting, which is when you compare a recent beer with an older one of the same type. This is not recommended for a can of Coors Light. Only heavily hopped, highly alcoholic beers can stand up to a two- or three-year shelving. It was the "highly alcoholic" part that eventually did me in.

Now, before you call me a pansy-ass lightweight, let me explain. Good tasting notes requires thorough work--a lot of concentration over several hours of drinking. And that requires food at some point during the day, which I had avoided under the mistaken impression that the tasting would include a meal. Drinking on an empty stomach is usually not a good idea unless you're about to do something you don't care to remember. And these were strong beers, ranging from 10 to 20 (how did they manage 20?) percent ABV.

Our host, Dogfish sales representative Claus Hagelman, told us to expect the aged versions of the brewery's offerings to have a muskier, subtler and more caramel flavor. We started with the 2005 and 2008 Burton Baton, an oak aged English Strong Ale. The beer began as a gift from brewery founder Sam Calagione to the undisputed king of beer writing, the late Michael Jackson. Calagione used a Depression-era recipe from the Ballantine brewery to recreate its famous Burton ale, aged it for 10 years in oak, then blended it with Dogfish's 90 Minute IPA. Indeed, the vintage Burton Baton was much sweeter and mellower, with a markedly more pronounced caramel flavor. It tasted almost like a barleywine. The 2008 had a much sharper taste with more upfront hoppiness.

That pattern mostly held true for the rest, with the older beers tasting more mature, the sweetness more concentrated. Immort Ale from 2006 had a very pronounced maple sugar essence backed by notes similar to raisins or prunes, while its younger brother had more upfront hops. The 2006 120 Minute IPA (the 20 ABV monster) had a piney, hoppy nose that instantly put a smile on my face, even though so it was really on the syrupy side, almost unhindered by bitterness. For "drinkability," I preferred the 2009 version and its even more intense blast of hops and clean-sweeping bitter aftertaste. Both versions of the Fort Raspberry Ale (18 percent ABV) carried a rich dark chocolate character reminiscent of vintage port wine with the younger version flashing a hoppier, slightly more bitter side.

These were generous samples, too. By this point I should have stopped, but a Dogfish representative offered to let me try a few other Dogfish beers from his private stash, otherwise unavailable in this state. Black & Blue (a Belgian golden ale with black raspberry and blueberry flavor), Sah'tea (a spiced rye beer) and one amazing thick, dark, totally opaque beer that I think may have been Palo Santo Maron.

My notes and my memory from those bonus beers are pretty much a blur. Fortunately, the representative called me a cab. There were a lot worse things he could have called me, "lightweight" being one of them.

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