Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Noble Rot (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery)

You might notice these days that the flavor and character of beer is being discussed in the carefully nuanced terms once reserved for wine.

Dig a little deeper and you will find an enthusiastic community of collectors who seek out "ageable" beers and squirrel them away in the cellar as one would a bottle of Burgundy and Bordeaux. And it is now common for restaurants and brewpubs to offer beer pairing dinners, where a glass of stout or a goblet of Belgian ale will be placed alongside entrees and given legitimate gastronomic consideration.

At the same time that beer is finding a market with gourmet sensibilities, wine is reaching its broadest audience ever in the U.S. and is being consumed in record volume. Research by the Wine Market Council attributes these facts to the "wine boom" of the '70s and early '80s when baby boomers embraced wine, and to a similar adoption of the beverage in recent years by the generation known as the Millennials. Many are drinking wine on occasions and in settings that have been the traditional province of beer.

So, as the distinction between the beer and wine worlds blurs, Milton's Dogfish Head Craft Brewery has chosen an appropriate moment to release Noble Rot, which they describe as a "saison-esque" ale in which grapes contribute 49.5 percent of the fermentable sugar and the rest comes from traditional brewing grains. Noble Rot will be hitting shelves and taps over the next few weeks.

Although Dogfish previously experimented with grapes as a beer additive in their limited edition release Red & White, Noble Rot takes the grape-to-grain ratio to such an extreme that the resulting product can truly be called a beer/wine hybrid. "This is the absolute closest to equal meshing of the wine world and the beer world that's ever been done commercially," says Dogfish Head Founder and President Sam Calagione in the press release that accompanied our tasting sample.

While pinot noir juices were used in Red & White, the grapes in this latest concoction are specially cultivated viognier and pinot gris grown by Alexandria Nicole Cellars of Prosser, Washington. The viognier grapes have been infected with a benevolent fungus called botrytis (which French vintners called pourriture noble, or "noble rot"), which concentrates the sweetness of the grapes by reducing their water content. The pinot gris grapes have also undergone flavor intensification, in their case by a manual culling process.

To fairly evaluate this unique brew, I wanted to include the tasting impressions of an expert from the wine side of the house in addition to my own. I called around and eventually found someone even better suited to the task: Joe Hiester, who oversees the surprisingly extensive beer program at Wilmington's Domaine Hudson, a wine bar and restaurant with a wine list 425 bottles deep. Hiester, a 31-year-old Wilmington native, has been at the restaurant for about four years, prior to which he worked for Eclipse Bistro and Iron Hill Brewery.

Hiester and I arranged four wine glasses in front of us on the bar of the elegant yet cozy Domaine Hudson.

Into the first glass, as a reference for the saison style that Dogfish loosely targeted, we poured Hennepin Farmhouse Saison from Brewery Ommegang of Cooperstown, New York. This beer has a complex aroma that combines notes of lilac and honeysuckle with suggestions of yeast, pale malts, and banana bread. The taste is equally complex, first lemony and tart, then clove and cardamom notes over a fruity foundation, all lifted by effusive carbonation. Light grain and grass flavors are present in the dry finish.

Next, to get an idea of the grape flavors at play, we poured a glass of Domaine Saint-Amant Côtes du Rhône La Borry, made predominantly from viognier. In the bouquet of this wine I detected apple, overripe melon, and alcohol. In the mouth I noted low acidity, and flavors of weighty minerals and green apple.

To taste the particular effect of botrytis, we poured a glass of Domaine du Petit Paris Monbazillac, a dessert wine made in southwest France from handpicked botrytis grapes. The mouthfeel of this wine was dramatically heavier and oilier than the non-botrytis wine. It was sweet and densely flavorful, almost lush, with a slight citrus quality. In comparison with the Côtes du Rhône, I could not have asked for a clearer demonstration of the "noble rot" effect.

So now, fully grounded in every quality we might encounter, we turned to Dogfish Head's Noble Rot, which shined a bright straw color in the fourth wine glass. A reserved quantity of white foam is produced by the pour. The aroma is full and intriguing, and has unmistakable hints of Belgian character -- subdued spiciness, mustiness, and bread -- as well as unmistakable clues to the presence of sweet, tart grape.

There is a distinct contour to the beer's flavor: it starts with a blast of yeasty effects and fleeting, wine-like high notes, then drops into a solid white grape middle, and resolves in a long, meandering finish as the other threads drop off to a clean, light malt flavor. A hybrid, indeed, but as Hiester observed with approval, "At the end it tastes like I'm drinking a beer, and I love that."

It's fascinating to sort out on the palate all the ingredients and consider their role in this beer's maturing process. The grape component of Noble Rot does not share the slickness or sweetness on display in the Monbazillac. I imagine the Belgian ale yeast used to ferment this beer was ravenous for the sugars it found in the botrytized viognier must, and left behind only enough to hint at the grape's original flavor. The choice of pilsner malt and wheat as the grains was wise, as they are light enough not to conflict with the wine flavors, but have enough body to ride them out.

After a few cycles through the various libations we were comparing, Hiester noted, "I have all these things to drink in front of me: a nice French viognier, a saison beer that I've loved for a long time, and this Noble Rot. And I keep reaching for the Noble Rot."

As for its food pairing potential, we tried the beer with a few items from the Domaine Hudson menu. It proved a clean, refreshing accompaniment to the seared sea scallop with broccoli risotto, meshing with the savory flavors of the seared surface and providing contrast with the subtle, succulent inner meat. It worked even better against the chilled seafood salad, buoying the steamed Little Neck clams and Prince Edward Island mussels, while teasing out and boosting the fresh vegetable flavors of the finely diced red bell pepper, celery, Spanish green olives, and arugula.

Hiester, who helps his restaurant patrons pair beers with their meals, emphatically remarked: "I want food with this." Dogfish Head Craft Brewery can count that as a success.

No comments:

Post a Comment