Beyond TODAY: Noble Rot Q&A with Dogfish Head Founder Sam Calagione

Beyond TODAY is an extension of our weekly column for the TODAY Show food blog. Here we’ll look at the same subject from another angle, which will likely be far geekier.  Click here to see our latest TODAY Show post.

It’s always cool to speak with Sam Calagione, the founder and spiritual leader of Dogfish Head Brewery.  I interviewed Sam in preparation for my Today Show article about Noble Rot, a Belgian Saison/wine hybrid that’s brewed with fungus infected grapes.  While it sounds disgusting, the beer quite sophisticated and full of character.

Here’s the content of our full interview for your reading enjoyment:

This interview is for the Today Show’s food blog, which is a pretty mainstream outlet for geeky craft beer talk. Do you think craft beer is becoming mainstream?

I definitely feel that were at a tipping point, where its not just this hardcore insular beer geek community, it’s reached the general foodie, culinary, wine community.

Do you think the decline in sales that the big industrial brewers have been seeing at a time when craft beer continues to grow is a sign that people are realizing that there’s something better out there to enjoy?

I don’t like seeing overall beer shrinking compared to spirits and wine, but I’m very proud that the craft brewing industry is maintaining this wonderful trajectory of growth.  All these small American-owned, adventurous breweries are experiencing growth even during these troubling economic times. It just shows you that people are like “wow, what an amazing value for the dollar compared to high end wine.”

It’s a good product and goodness wins out.  Goodness is something we all aspire to – here at Dogfish it’s one of our key words.  And part of that comes down to valuable differentiation, which I think all craft brewers in general do a great job of, telling a story that resonates with people.  They say, “hey we’re local, we’re in your community, please support us and keep your money in the community” compared to a giant international industrial scale brewer.  And the other side of that is valuable, meaning even at a premium over ubiquitous light lager, flavorful craft beer is only incrementally more expensive that the cheapest beers, but offers this giant, limitless breadth of flavors and complexity.

Where did the idea of brewing a beer from grapes infected with the botrytis fungus come from?

I was out in Seattle doing some beer dinners and visiting accounts. Our distributor in Washington State sells beers and wines, and he gave me as a gift this botrytis infected viognier from a local vineyard. I tried it and it was an epiphany moment for me. I was like “holy crap this is good” and then “holy crap I think we can make a really amazing beer using this.” So, I found out that the folks out there with the viognier wine was Alexandria Nicole Cellars, and they were named Washington State vineyard of the year.  Jarrod, the principal there, I got in touch with him, he’s an amazing guy and he came out and brewed this beer with us.  He’s a great compatriot.

They saying in the wine industry is it takes a lot of beer to make good wine, because wine people in general like good, flavorful craft beer.  So we just saw a great opportunity to get our chocolate in their peanut butter.

Why did you name the beer Noble Rot?

The process of botrytis infection is called “Noble Rot” in the wine industry. I thought, wow, it gives great sweet and sour components, that compliment Belgian spicy Saison beer, plus I’d like to actually call it Noble Rot.  To do this really sophisticated, complex hybrid of beer and wine, but give it the sort of irreverent name, that the average person will ask “am I really going to spend thirteen dollars on a champagne bottle full of something with ‘Rot’ in the title?”

It’s a challenging concept for a beer and a challenging name.  Who are you challenging?

We’re hopefully challenging beer, wine and food lovers palates by saying “okay, we’re not going to lie to you, this is going to be an intensely flavorful beer, and it’s made with this grey rot as part of the process, this mold that grows on certain grapes and amplified the complexities of those grapes.” So by making it kind of irreverent, it allows us to invite people into the story and not treat it as all high falutin’ with this exclusive language that you often see in the beer world.

I hand painted the label on this, and it shows our logo rotting into this king dude – it’s not exactly a traditional approach to a product launch or how you protect your brand, but we’re just having fun with it.

Are you trying to tweak the wine world by pointing out the rotting grapes in this beer without trying to be all fancy about it?

This beer is pretty much exactly half wine and half beer, but in general we’re saying there’s a misperception in that everyone in the wine world takes themselves extremely seriously. I’ve seen signs of that, I did events in New Zealand with beer versus wine, and by in large the wine makers were kind of snooty and did act like their products were superior just by nature of them coming from the grape, but then I meet a guy like Jarrod from Alexandria Nicole, and I know there’s a new generation of wine makers that recognize the creativity and artistic approach of craft brewers and respect it.

Do you think people will be freaked out that you used fungus-infected grapes in this beer?

Peoples for centuries have been just opening their roofs and letting wild yeast and micro flora and fauna come in and spontaneously ferment their beers.  To some extent this idea of stuff beyond traditional brewers yeast influencing beer, whether it’s wild yeast, bacteria or whatever is nothing new.  All beer before Louis Pasteur and Reinheitsgebot, before we understood what sterile environment means, probably tasted like modern lambics, all around the world. They probably had infections, they probably had wild yeast in them, so this is nothing new, it’s just the way we are presenting it with this irreverence.  We’re really proud of the complexity of this beer and how well it turned out. We’re not taking ourselves too seriously.

How would you describe the taste of Noble Rot?

The nose has some of those rustic Saison notes woven in with the fruit.  The middle of the flavor is more intense wine-like, and you get that complexity of the botrytis-infected viognier in the middle of it, and it ends kind of dry, so that it’s be a great partner for food, not too cloying or sweet.  That dryness that it ends with comes from some of the hops and the spicy Belgian yeast.  So it’s like wine in beer in the nose, wine up front, beer at the end.

Sort of like a mullet

(Laughs) The mullet of the wine and beer world – that’ll freak out the wine purists even more!

Is this a good crossover beer for wine lovers?

The idea of a crossover from the wine world into the beer world is nothing new for us. We started brewing Raison d’Etre with raisins, which is meant to be red-wine-like and meant to partner with a steak. We’ve been brewing that since 1996.  And then Midas Touch, made with white Muscat grapes, we’ve been brewing that one since 2000, so we’ve always had beers in our portfolio that are meant to bridge this gap between beer and wine, but none of them to the degree of Noble Rot, meaning 49.5% of this is really wine, and only 50.5% of this is technically grain-based, or beer.

What foods do you recommend pairing with Noble Rot?

I think this beer pairs really well with bitter green-based salads and spicy foods, like curries or even Buffalo wings.

Tell me more about the infected grapes the “noble rot” process.

We don’t grow the grapes here in Delaware, they’re grown in Washington State.  I believe the noble rot infection occurs on less than 5% of the viognier grape harvest in Washington State each year, so it’s expense.  We spent over $65,000 just in grape must to make less than 4000 cases of this beer.  So it’s an incredible labor of love for us in terms of the investment we have to make in this.

The botrytis infection actually takes place on the grapes while they’re still on the vine, and it breaks down and perforates the skin of the grapes, dries them up so there’s more complexity in each individual grape. Then these botrytis infected grapes are separated from the other viognier grapes.  They go through their own separate crush, then they take that must from the crush and put it in a large tanker truck.  We pay extra money to have it shipped across America cold, so that any wild yeast or bacteria that are on those grapes don’t reactivate part way through the journey.  Then we pump it into a holding tank in our brewery, brew a fairly straightforward Belgian Saison, and at the end of the boil we dose in the botrytis infected viognier grapes must, pitch the yeast, and then for a little further complexity, we add back post-fermentation a little bit of pinot gris grape must from Washington as well to make this beer.  But 90-something percent the fermentable sugars on the grape side of this recipe come from viognier, and only a single digit come from pinot gris.

My wife is afraid to drink this beer because she thinks the fungus is gonna get her.  Can you please explain that it’s perfectly safe?

The addition of the botrytis infected viognier grapes happens on the hot side.  We dose it in right after the boil, which means the beer is still over 180 degrees, and after we dose it in, we whirlpool it to make sure everything’s mixed in well together, beer and wine grapes.  After the injection of botrytis infected must, the liquid combination still sits over 180 degrees for over half an hour, so it’s essentially pasteurized  pre-yeast pitch.  It’s pretty safe.  I mean we’re a brewery that’s made a beer with spit before and we made that safe, so this beer, I can assure you, even with the botrytis infection is very safe.

So this is actually the second-grossest beer you’ve ever made?

(Laughs) yeah, we were going to put that on the label – “Noble Rot the Second Grossest Beer We’ve Ever Made” – but it wouldn’t all fit!

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Categories: Beer, dogfish head, sam calagione

Author:Jim

Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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3 Comments on “Beyond TODAY: Noble Rot Q&A with Dogfish Head Founder Sam Calagione”

  1. February 23, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    Once again–great interview!

    • February 23, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

      Thanks, Massugu. He’s always fun to speak with and makes me look good!

  2. February 26, 2012 at 1:37 am #

    Very much enjoyed this interview! I’d definitely rather drink fungus beer or saliva beer!

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