Beer Baron: Dogfish Head’s return fills exotic niche vacant since it left

‘Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.

I’m not sure if the majority of beer drinkers share this belief, but I’m with Tennyson on this one.

But I’ll tell you what’s even better: To have loved, lost, and regained.

Earlier this month, the often exotic, sometimes strange and almost always wonderful brews from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery returned to Wisconsin beer shelves and taps for the first time in nearly three years. The Milton, Del., brewery suspended sales of its “off-centered ales for off-centered people” here and in three other states in early 2011, saying it just couldn’t make beer fast enough to meet demand.

“We were left with a choice: leave shelves empty and frustrate beer enthusiasts everywhere, or stay true to our off-centered roots, pull back, and focus on strong, smart growth,” the company wrote in a recent blog post announcing its return to Wisconsin and Rhode Island. (Dogfish Head expects sales in Indiana and Tennessee, the other markets left dry in 2011, to resume early next year.)

That smart growth meant an expansion of its brewing capacity. Dogfish Head’s new 200-barrel brewhouse came on line in July, bumping up its annual capacity to about 500,000 barrels, although the brewery will finish 2013 around 200,000 barrels — enough, apparently, to slake the thirst of 30 states.

That production number — for comparison, New Glarus Brewing made about 126,000 barrels in 2012 — is all the more impressive when you consider the kind of beers Dogfish makes. Founder Sam Calagione travels the globe searching for weird ingredients and weird ways to ferment them, a curiosity documented in the 2010 Discovery Channel series ”Brewmasters.”

A quick look at some of the brews Dogfish Head is sending our way is instructive in this regard. The first six are year-round offerings that already are in Madison or will be within the month, according to Frank Beer Distributors in Middleton; the others are occasional, limited releases.

90 Minute IPA, a world-class imperial India pale ale that would be enough for me to celebrate Dogfish Head’s return even if it were the only beer they offered.

Indian Brown Ale, a Scotch ale/IPA/brown ale hybrid.

Midas Touch, a mead-beer hybrid that was the first in Dogfish Head’s “Ancient Ales” series brewed from recipes derived from chemical analysis of archaeological finds. This one was teased out of a 2,700-year-old drinking vessel from the tomb of King Midas.

Burton Baton, a boozy mixture of imperial IPA and English old ale, aged in massive oak tanks for a month before bottling.

Sixty-One, a variant of Dogfish Head’s flagship 60 Minute IPA fermented with syrah grape must, which is basically unfermented wine. (The brewery is still straining to produce 60 Minute, so Wisconsin won’t get any of that beer just yet, said Frank Beer brand manager Mike Frank. Be patient for this excellent IPA.)

Namaste, a (surprise) straightforward witbier.

Tweason’ale, a gluten-free beer brewed with sorghum, buckwheat honey and strawberries.

75 Minute IPA, a blend of 90 Minute and 60 Minute IPAs, with additional fermentation in the bottle due to an addition of maple syrup before packaging.

Hellhound On My Ale, a hoppy strong ale that’s a tribute to early bluesman Robert Johnson. It’s one of several beers Dogfish Head makes in partnership with or tribute to famous musicians.

Noble Rot, a “science project” made with two kinds of grape juice, including one laced with a fungus that intensifies sweetness and complexity.

Kvasir, a recreation of a beverage last held in a 3,500-year-old drinking vessel found in Denmark. We’re not getting this one in Wisconsin, but check out its ingredients: wheat, lingonberries, cranberries, myrica gale, yarrow, honey and birch syrup. You know, normal beer stuff.

The limited releases are really weird, but even Dogfish Head’s year-round offerings are very unusual, their fantastic IPAs aside. No ambers or blonde ales to be found here, and many of them are big beers, up in the 9 percent ABV range that most breweries consider limited releases.

The last of the year-round beers Wisconsin can toast to Dogfish Head’s return pushes right past that and well up into imperial booziness. Let’s sip slowly and take a closer look.

Palo Santo Marron

Style: Brown ale, as it’s described on the label, seems inadequate for a beer that finishes at 12 percent ABV, so let’s call it a triple brown ale, even though that’s not a thing. In a further twist, it’s aged in a 10,000-gallon tank made of Paraguayan Palo Santo (“holy tree”) wood.

What it’s like: This, like a lot of Dogfish Head beers, is a beer without peer. It drinks more like a big, roasty stout than its supposed brown ale kin.

Where, how much: Dogfish Head’s beer was on shelves across the Madison area by Monday, and better bottle shops should have plenty, although with so many beers in their portfolio, finding any single beer may be hit or miss. Dogfish Head bottle formats and prices vary quite a bit depending on the beer; Palo Santo Marron’s four-packs of 12-ounce bottles will set you back about $14.

The beer: If you look really closely at Palo Santo, it might be the deepest brown you’ve ever seen. Or it just might be black. The aroma is of all that roasty, toasty malt, sharp alcohol and a leathery note, presumably from the unique wood. Calagione says that because Palo Santo wood is dense and resinous, it imparts caramel and spicy characteristics rather than the vanilla notes lent by the oak typically used to age alcoholic beverages. That certainly plays out in Palo Santo’s flavor, with the wood flavors at the forefront with the nearly burnt malts. The wood also seems to mute the ample alcohol somewhat. This beer is a mouthful, with a rich, viscous body that takes some time to drink. But that’s OK, Palo Santo is made to savor anyway.

The buzz: For Wisconsin beer geeks, Dogfish Head’s return fills back in an important void in the Wisconsin beer universe: extreme beers. The typical beer drinker here (or anywhere, really) isn’t going to drink a lot of Dogfish Head beer. It’s not going to replace our Tommy’s Porter or our Winter Skal or our Hopalicious. But a weird beer loaded with foraged berries and herbs you’ve never even heard of has its place. Most of these beers, there’s just nothing like them available here. And, as an IPA fan, I’m really excited to have a permanent place for 90 Minute in my beer fridge. So welcome back, Dogfish; we forgive you for leaving.

Bottom line: 3½ stars (out of four)