There’s been quite a bit of enthusiasm recently for a new program that has been airing on the Discovery Channel in the states. Brew Masters is hosted by Sam Calagione, who is the man behind Dogfish Head in Delaware. It begins broadcasting on the 17th on Discovery Canada and will probably be bookended by Kari Byron blowing things up and Mike Rowe cleaning out a stable. (While it would be disingenuous to suggest that you absolutely have to wait until next Monday to watch it on Discovery Canada, it would be irresponsible and morally suspect to mention that you can probably just punch “free tv brew masters” into Google and watch it whenever you feel like it. I suspect many of you will have done this already and I am therefore forced to denounce you as filthy internet pirates just in case any regulatory boards are paying attention.)
The show essentially revolves around two arcs in every episode. The main arc usually has to do with Sam Calagione and his thoroughly capable brewmasters being tasked with creating a beer with a specific theme. The secondary and significantly less featured arc has to do with the day to day running of the brewery. Usually these have to do with mishaps that have taken place during production.
Glue spills all over the floor, or a batch doesn’t ferment properly, or a piece of the bottling machine is found to be missing. It turns out that it’s relatively difficult to create a dramatic situation in a properly run brewery, so these problems get a lot of focus in order to create tension in the B story. The choice to focus less on these issues is essentially a tacit admission that even the loss of a half million dollars worth of product is not really interesting visually. There’s a shot of a hose pouring beer into a drain; No one is tearing their hair or committing seppuku.
The main arc may as well be titled “The Continuing Adventures of Sam Calagione.” I feel like I should talk about Sam a little. He’s thoroughly likeable, personable, enthusiastic and, I suspect, has a gift for promotion that rivals P.T. Barnum. I don’t mean that derogatorily; it’s just that Sam is everywhere. If you’ve seen a documentary on beer in the last three or four years, you have seen Sam. The glimpses of the backstory of Dogfish Head that we’re given show him to be a sort of Horatio Alger myth for the craft beer set. He’s managed to grow Dogfish Head into the 16th largest craft brewery in the US in just under 14 years, has written a number of books and has been featured in the New Yorker and on The Huffington Post. For all that, he drives around in a beat up pickup and somewhat inexplicably speaks in the manner of Keanu Reeves in Point Break. I think that it’s a carefully cultivated media persona adopted by a very savvy man, but the anachronism is delightful whether or not it is achieved by design.
The purpose of the main arc of the show is designing a beer. Whether they’re going on an ingredient run to Egypt or searching the Andes for authentic brewing methods, there’s going to be an extreme beer at the end of it. Whether that beer is period authentic or an expression of the influences observed is up for debate. One of the benefits of brewing a theoretical ancient style of beer is that there’s nothing available for comparison. It does result in a unique product that promotes the idea of Dogfish Head being a leader in experimentation.
The episode that stuck out for me is the one in which Sam is tasked with creating a beer commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Miles Davis album Bitches Brew. He decides on a blend of an Imperial Stout and an Ethiopian inspired honey beer bittered with gesho root. The reason I find that compelling is that the Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Dogfish Head’s extreme beers work so closely conceptually.
With Bitches Brew, Miles Davis basically galvanized Jazz Fusion as a concept. The album was recorded over the period of three days and much of what you hear listening to it is the result of the self-indulgence of the musicians involved. It’s improvisational to the extent that Davis actually issued cues to the other musicians instead of scores and it stands as a landmark album for the reason that it is unrepeatable and influential in terms of the soundscape that it creates. If you listen to a jazz radio station, you’re not going to hear a lot of covers of Miles Runs The Voodoo Down or Pharoah’s Dance.
With Bitches Brew, or really any of the extreme beers that Dogfish Head produces, you end up with similar genre defiance and stylistic melding. Peruvian Chicha? Egyptian… something? Does that fall into a category or is it a new and experimental thing? Can it be replicated? Would anyone want to?
There are a couple of issues that both Miles Davis and Dogfish Head engender:
First of all, they are both very high profile. If you become interested in jazz, you’re going to end up with a copy of Bitches Brew within a few months. Similarly, if you become interested in craft beer you’re going to try Dogfish Head fairly early on. In the same way that it might be difficult to have much interest in the Glenn Miller Orchestra after hearing Bitches Brew, it can be difficult to be interested in a Pale Ale after drinking a Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. They may neither of them be the first point of contact for a budding enthusiast, but their iconic statuses ensure that there will be exposure and the amount of hype that exists around them can inform an opinion.
It requires context. Are they both interesting? Definitely. Are they both important? Certainly. Could you listen to or drink Bitches Brew all the time? No. Definitely not. Both the Miles Davis album and the Dogfish Head beer exist because of an underlying conceptual framework which is being expanded upon. Look at how many jazz musicians cover How High The Moon or Mack The Knife. Look how many breweries make a standard English Pale Ale.
Secondly, they both spawn imitators. Once you create Jazz Fusion, you have the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. Once you create Extreme Brewing, you have people aging 15% beers on spruce shavings and creating Galactic Imperial IPAs with theoretical IBUs of over a thousand, incorporating a heretofore unrecognized variety of turnip.
Eventually, because of the imitators, the popularity of the thing dies off somewhat. Once the initial work has been done to show what is possible, the importance of subsequent attempts within the genre tends to lessen. On the other hand, Tony Bennett and a hoppy Pilsner never go out of style.
Tortured analogies aside, Brew Masters is an interesting show that we can all learn a lot from. If you’re an Ontario brewer, it’s a good chance to see what Sam can do with a gift for self promotion and a willingness to experiment. If you’re an Ontario beer drinker, it’s a good chance to make a wish list for a trip to Buffalo.