Yes, I’m a comic book geek.
So it’s been going on 10 years since my first taste of the wonderful brews of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery. So as not to incriminate myself I won’t say how old I was at the time; I’ll just say that my beer geekery was something that started early. As with most hobbies (and addictions, for whatever that might say about us), the pursuit of new and interesting beers led to meeting others with the same proclivities. Somewhere along the way, I discovered Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA. As a young hophead 60 Minute was something of a revelation: So different from the big West Coast beers I’d had, with a truly different take on what it was to make a ‘hoppy’ beer. As I learned more about DFH and tried their stuff, I became hooked. Here was a brewery within my region of the country that could legitimately claim to be among the best in the world.
As I started my first wine store job, it was left to me as the lone beer-knowledgeable staff member to take care of our small but potent beer selection. A guy who had worked there before I arrived was a Beer Geek who had stocked our walk-in cooler with all manner of obscure microbrews. There were back vintages of Anchor Xmas, Cantillon, Hair of the Dog, Brasserie des Rocs and, of course, Dogfish Head. The thing was, these weren’t the Dogfish beers I knew. These were in big 750mL bottles, corked and caged. I had a backstock of 90 and 120 Minute IPA, multiple cases worth.
I took a 90 home to try it. I was on pins and needles; if 60 Minute was so good, what could 90 be like? Well, it was a revelation. Almost immediately it became my favorite beer (alongside Arrogant Bastard). Then I made a crucial error: Chatting up a wine collector who dabbled in beer, I mentioned the 750’s in the cooler. His eyes lit up and I knew I was doomed. He bought every bottle we had right there on the spot and I never saw either again. Undaunted, I took to making the 12 ounce 4-pack 90 Minute my everyday beer. Something was different, however. Asking around, I learned about bottle conditioning and the how’s and why’s of Dogfish’s altering of what I considered the nectar of the gods. I kept up with the 90; it remained atop my list and even now there are moments where all I want is the rich, fresh hoppy palate that I only get from 90. But I couldn’t ignore it—it was different. It had changed. ‘Such is life’ I reasoned.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago: I’d had many conversations with the guys at Dogfish and in almost every one I’d sneak in a request—please bring back the old bottle-conditioned 90 Minute. It became something of a running joke. I was always told it wasn’t happening, and in all fairness they had very good reasons for not doing it. Then one day, in a trade with a buddy of mine, I came into possession of a special bottle of 90 Minute. DFH apparently made a run of the old-style, bottle-conditioned 90 Minute IPA. Limited to 50 cases (not confirmed), it was made as a ‘Thank you’ gift for some of their favored retailers and distributors. I’ll take this moment to only be slightly bitter that I apparently wasn’t one of those favored retailers…ok, then. I split the bottle over the holidays with my best friend who was in town from L.A. It was fantastic, fresh and with an earthiness that doesn’t always come through in the regular 90. It was a great bottle of beer to be sure, and satisfying as all get-out, but it wasn’t the revelation it had been years ago. That evening was more of a celebration; one of those nights where you have the right drink with the right friend and you don’t just toast your drink but your life and those who make it worthwhile.
Right before my wedding earlier this year I started hearing rumors of a new DFH IPA. Nobody I talked to seemed to know anything about it other than that it was new and apparently was very good. Most said that it was the best IPA they’d ever made. Needless to say I was intrigued. In August, my wife and I went to Rehoboth for a weekend of sun and beers. Hanging at the Dogfish Brewpub, I found the Squall IPA in stock. They were letting folks buy only two bottles at a time since supply was so low so I swiped a pair and planned to come back the next night for two more. I struck up a conversation with the bartender taking care of us (there’s that ‘making friends through a hobby’ thing again…) and he said he’d let me buy as many as I wanted as long as I didn’t want to buy a case or some such quantity. I asked for six, but there were only two left. Oh well. We went home and after delivering the bottle promised to a friend, I had three bottles of the mysterious, rare Squall IPA to enjoy.
For those who may not have heard the news yet, let me break it down for you a bit: Squall IPA is essentially the original 90 Minute IPA, bottle-conditioning and all, but with the twist of using six different hops. I could use a confirmation on this, but from my understanding 90 Minute is made exclusively with Cascade hops (which explains why when they run 90 through the Randall at Rehoboth, they always pack the Randall with Cascade). I took some time after getting home to crack one open, wanting to catch myself at the right moment. Finally, I could wait no longer…
Poured into my trusty Sam Adams glass at a relatively cold temperature. The aroma was more complex, more aggressive than 90 yet at the same time more floral, almost to the point of being slightly perfumed. The palate was rich, with a stark fruity quality to the hops. My wife, having taken a sip, noticed that as well. She thought it was easier to drink than 90 which surprised me as she is not a hophead. But it made sense to me–I’ve always found bottle-conditioned beers to have a subtle, underlying ‘smoothness’ to them that I can’t quite explain. The mid-palate and finish saw something come through that brought me back; the earthiness–the woody, dirty notes of pine and resin that buffered and balanced the intense fruit notes that come with such overwhelming use of hops. This wasn’t my old 90 Minute, that’s for sure. This was better. This was more than what I remembered blowing my mind all those years ago. So why wasn’t I freaking out? Shouldn’t I be blown away?
I’m (obviously) having a hard time explaining this. I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent or make a mountain of a molehill, but having had some time to think about the beer (I killed the last bottle about a week and a half ago) I think I know where my head’s at with Squall, and 90 for that matter.
I’m about to turn 30, and while I’m not exactly ready to go on Medicare (though I’d take it) you can’t help but reflect. With time comes perspective, knowledge, what some might call wisdom. I’ve been wary of nostalgia lately, worried that I might give things too much importance or relevance in my life. It’s easy to do; studies show that as we get further removed from events we remember them differently. The first time you rode a bike, kissed a girl; the times you hurt yourself or others hurt you—likely weren’t that good nor were they that bad. It’s all in how you remember them. 90 Minute was such a revelation in my early 20’s because I’d never had anything to equal it. Squall didn’t blow my mind apart because I have so much to compare it to now. I went in looking for something that you don’t find when you’re looking for it.
Nostalgia can be a comfort, but it can also be a rose-colored lens. I’ve been trying to find the balance. I think I may have been trying too hard. My cynicism is honed and finely tuned. In the past few years I’ve been finding that part of me that used to wonder, that used to embrace every experience as new. The thing is, Squall is an amazing beer. It is refined, built to last and in every way better than the original Dogfish 90 Minute IPA. I was too busy living in the past to really enjoy it the way I should have. I’ve been doing that with a lot of things in life, for that matter. I know that doesn’t mean much to those of you reading this for a beer review, and I apologize for that. But you have to always keep in mind that any tasting experience contains so many variables, our state of mind being one of the biggest, that perspective is essential. We all seem to want what we used to have, but now is always so much better because we made it here to enjoy it.
I never thought I’d end up in the field I’m in. I never thought I’d be turning 30 with a beautiful wife and with most of my sanity intact. Hell, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to 30. I’ve made many friends in the beer and wine business, a field filled with people always looking to make the great better, and always up for a conversation. I guess what I’m saying is: Know the things that you remember, fondly or not, but know them. My first kiss was wonderful, my parents divorcing was the best thing they could have ever done for me, my father is a worthless dick who I’m better off without, I never should have been in college when I was and 90 Minute IPA is my favorite beer in the world. I consider Squall part of the 90 Minute ‘canon’ so to speak, therefore it’s atop the list. I can’t wait to get my hands on more to enjoy it the way I should have the first time.
That’s the joy of getting older; you learn faster and know that there’s always another chance to get it right. Except for those cases of 90 and 120. I totally should have bought those. I will always regret that.
Take some time and think about what you’d like to do over. Go out and do it.
Next time: Sierra Nevada Harvest & Chico Estate.