Our ongoing series on the essential craft beers that everyone ought to know.
Long before modern craft brewers were trying to reinvent the IPA to differentiate theirs from the competition, there was Sam Calagione and Dogfish Head brewery. With today’s craft beer market absolutely saturated with IPAs, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to make one that stands out just a little more than the other guy’s, with black IPAs, rye IPAs, sour IPAs, brut IPAs and endless combinations and variants of the style. Dogfish Head, however, was experimenting with and releasing hybrid styles before the turn of the century.
First released in 1999, DOGFISH HEAD BREWERY’s Indian Brown Dark IPA was created as a mash-up between a classic brown ale, an IPA and a Scotch ale. And just what is a DARK IPA, you might ask? An astute observer will note that an IPA is an India PALE Ale, so having a dark IPA seems sort of a misnomer. I’m positive I’m not the first one to make that observation, but this is Dogfish Head we’re talking about here. They have a whole slew of brews that sound odd on paper, but upon first sip, you will find that you have stumbled into the wondrously delicious realm that are Dogfish Head beers. Take, for example, Wood Aged Bitches Brew. Named and initially brewed 40 years after the Miles Davis jazz-rock hybrid double LP (which arguably initiated the whole hybrid music genre of jazz fusion), it’s a mix of African mead and imperial stout aged on two kinds of wood. Dogfish’s immensely popular kettle sour, SeaQuench Ale, is made by sequentially combining a Kolsch, a Gose, and a Berliner Weisse with black limes, sour lime juice, and East Coast sea salt.
Dogfish Head Brewery began operating in 1995 and has been brewing tantalizingly odd and wonderful brews since then (hence its logo’s motto: “off-centered ales for off-centered people”). While most brewers start off with the fundamentals—a Pale Ale, a Lager, an IPA—Dogfish Head’s founder, Sam Calagione, brewed hybrid recipes in the early years, creating—in addition to the ones above: Raison D’Etre, a Belgian strong ale brewed with raisins and beet sugar; Midas Touch, an herb beer brewed with muscat grapes and honey based on an ancient recipe found in an Egyptian tomb; the famous Punkin’ Ale (see my review) and, of course, Indian Brown Ale. Despite (or hopefully because of?) these experimental beers, Dogfish Head has become one of the leading craft breweries in the nation. Its beers can be found in over 40 states and have always challenged the notion of what great beers should taste like.
But back to Indian Brown! On first appearance, it does not look like an IPA. Nor do its aromas say IPA. In fact, it doesn’t even really taste like an IPA at all! I poured my bottle of Indian Brown Ale into my glass and took note of the dark brown hue—much like light-roast coffee poured into a glass mug. It left a generous mocha-colored head, much like a stout. The aromas were gorgeously complex, with roasted malts, herbs and dark fruits, very reminiscent of a good Scotch ale, and almost “Belgian-esque” due to the mild esters. If you take another whiff, you will catch the flowery hop aromas, but they are subtle, peeking out from among the roasty malt goodness. The taste? Delicious with a smooth complexity that just makes you want to let the ale sit on your tongue a moment before swallowing. The flavors of a good dark (or brown) ale are all present—the hearty roasted malts, a slight, caramelly sweetness and hints of chocolate, tied together by a wonderful hoppy bitterness that reminds you that this is indeed a dark ale. It’s an IPA hybrid after all. At 50 IBUs, you definitely won’t miss the added hops.
This is a beer that only Dogfish Head could have pulled off successfully in the early days of craft brewing—an IPA hybrid when IPAs, brown ales, and Scotch ales were all fighting to be recognized on their own. Although the IPA categorization might be a stretch, this is still a great brown ale with a pleasant hoppy zing to it. It might even be categorized today as an imperial brown ale, due to a slightly higher ABV, which is remarkably understated in the flavor profile, making this an easy-drinking dark ale. This is one tasty beer and one more offering by Dogfish Head that should be on any beer drinker’s essentials list. —J.A.