Brewing Milestones: Four Craft Breweries Celebrate Twenty Years of “Drinking” History

September 25, 2015

In 1995, eBay went live. That very same year, Buzz Lightyear and Woody came to life in the hit movie Toy Story. With much less fanfare, four craft breweries opened for business. If you can stand another cinematic reference, opening a craft brewery in that era was considered “Risky Business”.

Thankfully the founders of these iconic breweries pursued their passion and in doing so, changed the way people think about beer. With the release of their 20th anniversary beers to mark this milestone, we thought it was the right time to stop and smell the hops, so to speak. If you can’t be nostalgic over an anniversary beer, when can you?

Allagash Brewing (Portland, ME)

Rob Tod hates being bored, a trait that has propelled his Portland, Maine brewery into the craft beer stratosphere. A big fan of Belgian beers, Tod never even considered visiting breweries in that country before launching his own brewery. He wasn’t interested in copying the Belgians. He only wanted to take inspiration from their techniques and play around with them until the Belgian-style beers he produced were unmistakably his own. Like Curieux, his first foray into barrel aging. Tod took his award-winning Allagash Triple and placed it in Jim Beam Bourbon barrels for eight weeks. That’s how the liquid becomes Curieux, a beer with coconut and vanilla notes, and a soft hint of bourbon. The taste is sublime. And that’s no exaggeration.

“We keep trying to do our own thing,” Tod said on a recent trip to Philadelphia. “When I made our first beer, Allagash White [a Belgian-style wheat beer], not too many people wanted it. It was different, cloudy and spicy. But it was important for me to make something I was passionate about. And why build a brewery and make something people can already get?”

Fluxus 2015 is the beer Tod created to celebrate the brewery’s 20th anniversary. The name is Latin for “continuous change” which couldn’t be more appropriate given his penchant for exploring new techniques and ingredients. Fluxus is brewed each year to commemorate the anniversary of Allagash’s first beer sold in 1995 and of course, the recipe changes annually. This year’s version is a strong golden ale brewed with pilsner malt and a large portion of local maple syrup added to the kettle. After fermentation with a Belgian-style yeast strain, it is dry-hopped with two experimental hops, 06277 and 06297 imparting aromas of strawberry, pineapple and lime. The finish is balanced with a dry malty character. For every bottle of Fluxus sold, $1.00 is donated to a scholarship fund for pediatric nurses at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland.

Dogfish Head Brewery (Milton, DE)

“We are trying to explore the outer edges of what beer can be,” Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione said a few years ago to a group of fans who had assembled at a bar in Philadelphia to meet the man who created 60 Minute IPA. Calagione says 60 Minute is a beer geek’s session beer and it is so named because it is continuously hopped for one hour, insuring that the full flavor of the hops is not lost during the brewing process.

Dogfish Head Brewery earned its beer chops by brewing “off-centered ales for off-centered people” like Kvasir, which is part of Sam’s Ancient Ale Series. Working with Penn professor Patrick McGovern, Calagione developed the recipe from chemical, botanical and pollen traces the two men found in a 3,500 year-old Danish drinking vessel. The vessel was discovered in the tomb of a leather-clad women who was probably a priestess or high-class dancer. Kvasir, which is currently available, is made with toasty wheat and berries that impart a pungent tartness. The hops are balanced by honey and birch syrup. Yes, it’s unusual and different, but that’s the point. If you don’t care to be that adventurous, Dogfish Head’s most popular seasonal, Punkin Ale has already hit the shelves.

Once the nation’s smallest brewery, Dogfish Head is known for extreme, high-octane beers like 60 Minutes’ massive sibling, 120 Minute IPA. [Editor’s note: This beer isn’t produced that often, but they recently made a batch, so if you are lucky, you might just find some in the area.] It is continuously hopped for you guessed it, 120 minutes. This deceptively smooth and balanced beer boasts 18% alcohol. That is a big number. And speaking of numbers, Dogfish Head’s anniversary beer is called Higher Math. It’s an American Strong Ale and one of the strongest beers ever made. Its ABV comes in at 20%! Higher Math is fermented with cherries and aged on cocoa nibs. It is due to be released in October. Keep your eyes open for this one. It’s not to be missed.

Heavy Seas (Baltimore, MD)

This Baltimore brewery says its mission is to, “chart a bolder course to make awesome beer and have fun being a swashbuckling pyrate-type.” If anyone could play that role, it would be the brewery’s founder Hugh Sisson, who once aspired to be an actor. “Beer changed the trajectory of my life,” he explains. “My father bought a bar, tossed me the keys and warned me not to $%@# it up.” Sisson has been captain of his ship ever since. In fact, he is responsible for the legislation that legalized brewpubs in Maryland.

Sisson is a big fan of cask ales and he believes that draught beer is the best way to experience beer’s flavors and complexity. Sisson has what he believes is the largest cask-conditioned beer program in the country. This summer, Heavy Seas Brewmaster Christopher Leonard introduced the fourth beer in the company’s draught-only Desert Island series – “New World Saison”. This very limited release – only 100 barrels were produced in August – was a collaboration with the funk brothers, Henry Jager and Ryan Johnson. New Zealand and Australian hops lend a zesty kick to this golden ale. A special strain of French Saison yeast and pink pepper berries provide a spiciness, while wheat malt gives the Saison its frothy head. Finally a bit of biscuit malt is added, creating the beer’s bready balance.

So what swashbuckling beer did the brewery create for its 20th anniversary? The first ever beer tagged “Heavy Seas” was Winter Storm – an Imperial ESB with an American twist. To celebrate their 20th anniversary, the brewery created a stronger, 10% ABV barrel-aged version of the first Heavy Seas beer. 20 Year Storm is an Imperial ESB brewed with imported UK malt, local Domino brown sugar, a powerful English ale yeast, and a blend of American and British hops (to the tune of 70 IBUs). Post-fermentation, the beer is aged in bourbon barrels for approximately 75 days.

Weyerbacher Brewery (Easton, PA)

Dan Weirback, a homebrewer who enjoyed drinking big, flavorful beers, thought his brewery would produce easy drinking beers based on the British tradition. And for a while it did. But in 1997 after releasing Raspberry Imperial Stout – which happened to be his personal favorite homebrew recipe – he had a revelation. “Customers were more interested in drinking the kinds of beer I preferred and not the British-style ales we were focused on.” The following year, the brewery released a lineup of beers that we now associate with Weyerbacher, including Blithering Idiot Barleywine and everyone’s perennial favorite, Merry Monks Ale. Weirback added, “We found our edge producing esoteric styles and unique beers.”

In this 20th anniversary year, Weyerbacher has shown that it is still unique and innovative, releasing two beers to great acclaim; Tarte Nouveau, a tart, crisp lemony session beer and Sunday Morning Stout, an 11.3% ABV beer aged in bourbon barrels with coffee. Some people say it’s the best part of waking up. We agree.

Now for their anniversary beer, Brewmaster Chris Wilson explains, “We spent a lot of time developing our Belgian beer program so it made sense for us to brew a commemorative Belgian strong dark ale. It’s a rich beer, almost black in color, and it is a little less fruity than the special releases we have done in the past.” The taste of the beer is pure Weyerbacher magic, malty with notes of caramel, raisin and berries. Subtle hints of coriander and star anise make the beer even more festive.

But all this beer’s creativity didn’t just go into the bottle. The beer’s label was designed by local illustrator Bryce Glatfelter, a recent graduate of the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. Noticing that the labels on Weyerbacher’s bottles seemed to match his own edgy, whimsical aesthetic, he contacted Dan Weirback to see if he could design for the brewery. After perusing the artist’s portfolio on brycegladfelter.com, Weirback contacted the artist and the two men found they had a lot in common. Said Weirback, “I admire the way Bryce made reference to our brewery’s history in a way that’s fun, clever and sophisticated.”

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