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A beer lover's pilgrimage to the land of Dogfish Head

What kind of idiot would take a trip to the Delaware coast in December? One who loves the state's first - and the country's best - brewery.

Patrick Beach
The entrance sign announces the Milton, Del., brewery.

REHOBOTH BEACH, DEL. Talk about your busman's holiday. The beer columnist takes up Southwest Airlines' offer of cheap fares and where does he venture? The home of his favorite brewery, of course.

Before Her Royal Blondness (hereafter, "HRB") and I even get to our hotel, we stop for a restorative pint at Dogfish Head Brewing and Eats on the main drag of this summer resort town. HRB goes for a Johnny Cask, their India pale ale that's hopped for 75 minutes, which makes it a compromise between the 60 and 90 we can get around home. I have a Life & Limb, a 10-percent-alcohol collaboration with the folks at Sierra Nevada that uses maple syrup from Dogfish founder Sam Calagione's family farm and estate-grown barley from Chico, Calif.

One sip and I. Am. Home.

Certain folks around Austin (lookin' at you, Frank ) make a great deal of merriment at my expense for being a shameless tub-thumper for "the first state's first brewery," but honest, if you're a real hophead, there's a good chance you believe as I do: that Dogfish Head is the best — and certainly boldest — brewery in America. (Unibroue is up there, too, but Quebec ain't America, and let's keep it that way.) From the time Calagione opened the pub in 1995, brewing near-constant 10- or 12-gallon batches, Dogfish has done more to push the brewing envelope than anyone. They brew with wacky ingredients like beet sugar, Aztec cocoa powder and St. John's wort. Pangaea, a stunt beer if ever there was one, includes ingredients from all seven continents, including water from Antarctica. Midas Touch and Chateau Jiahu are living beer anthropology, using recipes dating back close to 3,000 years. Red & White and Black & Blue blur the line between beer and wine. The 120 Minute IPA is, at 18 percent alcohol, strong enough to make you go blind.

On this blustery Thursday afternoon, after a longer-than-necessary drive from the Baltimore airport (thanks, GPS!), it appears my zealotry will be rewarded. There are 13 beers on tap, nine in bottles, a small selection from the vintage stash — including a 2006 World Wide Stout going for, stay where you are, wallet, $16 — and eight or nine different kinds of vodka and rum made in the microdistillery upstairs.

Yeah, I'm glad we made it, and that's not just the Squall talking. Released in small quantities along the East Coast this summer, Squall is Dogfish's answer to those West Coast-style IPAs that shriek of hops: This imperial IPA starts out as basically a 90 , but it's dry-hopped in the fermenter and bottled-conditioned. The former technique — thanks to a custom-built piece of equipment that blasts bitterness into the bottom of the vessel like a leaf blower — imparts an explosive, citrusy barrage of aromatic bitterness, while the latter gives the finished product a seductive smoothness and not overly muscular mouth feel. HRB pronounces it "as perfect a beer as I've ever had." My ardor (for the beer, not HRB) is not quite as strong, but I'll definitely have more before the long weekend is over.

We will, in the course of four days, stop into the pub five times, which is about right. There's no way we'll miss Friday, Randall Tap night. The Randall, aka Randall the Enamel Animal, is an "organoleptic hop transducer module." Another way to put it is that it's a cylinder holding a half-pound or more of fresh leaf hops between the beer line and your glass, which gives a pint of 90 Minute IPA a tangy aroma you can probably smell outside. Previous models of the Dogfish-invented device made for a senseless waste of beer because the oils in the hops made the pour foamy, but engineering by a cabal of Nobel Prize-winning scientists has solved that.

In our rental car is a four-pack of Dogfish Head Punkin, HRB's previous favorite, and another four-pack of Festina Peche, which we don't have in the Austin market. It's a way light and low-alcohol Berliner weisse style brewed with peaches, great for summer sipping but not sturdy enough to gird us against the winter chill. It's also worth noting that the four-packs are about $7.50 each, a good bit cheaper than we can get them at home. And no sales tax. AND liquor stores are open on Sundays. Terribly civilized.

Behind-the-scenes tour

There are advantages to coming here in the off-season. The crowds are gone, there's zilch-o traffic and approximately five people staying in our hotel, three of whom closely resemble Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers .

Still, the afternoon tours at the brewery up the road in Milton stand a fair chance of filling up to their capacity of 35, which is why we've reserved spots for the Friday afternoon session on the site of the former Draper-King Cole vegetable cannery. On that same spot, Dogfish now employs 80 people, and as such is the town's largest private employer, and is on track to push about 97,000 barrels — slightly more than 3 million gallons — out the door this year. That's 30 percent growth over last year and a step up from Calagione's humble homebrew beginnings. But for some perspective, New Belgium in Colorado cranks out almost five times that. And, our tour guide tells us, Budweiser equals Dogfish's annual output every nine hours.

After the official tour we wind up in the gift shop and visitors' tasting room. Dogfish Head's "indie guru" (sounds better than "national sales guy") and Austin-area expat Claus Hagelman comes down for a hang, as does Calagione. Hagelman excuses himself to go pick out his "payday case": Turns out employees twice a month get to grab a case of beer, whatever they want.

Hagelman is kind enough to take us on a more intimate tour, including of the new corporate offices where everybody's cubicle, even founder Sam's, is the same size. Socialisty! He also shows us the in-house testing room, a row of desks with dividers like you were going to take the LSAT in there or something. Every batch goes through a 40-point blind test, and if it fails, it joins the $500,000 worth of beer the brewery dumped last year. Outside there are six new 833-barrel tanks with room on the slab for six more, an indication of the promise of future growth.

Next we're following Hagelman to his 1840s home to raid his impressive stash of payday stashes, then off to dinner with his wife, Susan, at the pub, where no fewer than five people will ask me, "Are you Claus's brother?" For the record: I suppose there is a nodding resemblance, but I am a mite older and four inches shorter. And impossibly more handsome.

We pass a rainy Sunday touring other quiet beach towns and waiting for the all-pork beer dinner at the pub that evening: a five-course dinner with five beers. Actually more than that, because Calagione orders up some bonuses, including Life & Limb and a bacon- and peanut-butter-infused vodka. The kicker is a chocolate-bacon cheesecake, with pig fat in the crust and a chocolate-dipped slice of bacon crowning each slice like a Mohawk. Genius. It's nice to see that head chef Matt Silverman makes food in the same spirit that Dogfish makes its beer.

Not that they don't get flak for that at times. Long at the vanguard of the "extreme beer" movement, Dogfish Head loves to irritate fussy traditionalists who think they've gone, well, too extreme. Calagione likes to describe the Reinheitsgebot, the German edict that requires beer there to contain only water, barley and hops, as "a form of art censorship." But he's Ornette Coleman, not Wynton Marsalis.

Criticism? Here he sits, warm and dry on a wet and cold night, in a checked shirt and in need of a shave. He's surrounded by family, friends, colleagues and customers. He's enjoyed a great dinner and has about five sample glasses of the good stuff in front of him.

There is no way, at this moment if any, that this man could care about criticism.

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603