My favorite line from my favorite book, Moby Dick, is “As for me, I am tormented by an everlasting itch for things remote. I long to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” The plot is centered around the epic chase for a certain white whale. Of course, “white whale” is a term that is near and dear to the hearts of many craft-beer aficionados, as it describes rare and highly desired beers. In my 29-year career as a brewer, I have had the good fortune to collaborate on beer projects that have encompassed every continent. (Reverse-osmosis melted-iceberg water from a U.S. military base on Antarctica was perhaps the hardest-to-source ingredient I have ever brewed with.) So, I have been lucky enough to scratch the “everlasting itch” for adventure through my beery wanderlust with friends and family near and far.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beer-holder. There have been hundreds of beers I have tried and loved from breweries around the world. For this list of six notable beers, I am focusing on beers that have left an indelible impression on my memory—not just the sensory experience of the beers themselves but also the moments and atmospheres in which I enjoyed them. My plan is to recall and document the six experiences from most to least recent. Even though the earliest beer memory I am sharing here is from almost two decades ago, I swear I can still smell and taste that beer as if I were there in the farmlands outside of Prague enjoying it yesterday.
Allagash North Sky
I’m typing this from our cabin in Dogfish Head, Maine, where we have a two-barrel R&D brewery, a wood-fired pizza oven, and a sweet little motorboat to explore the beautiful rustic harbors, tidal rivers, nooks, and crannies of Mid-Coast Maine. Earlier this summer, my wife Mariah and I and our two dogs took a boat ride from our home to Robinson’s Cove, which is the best aquatic farm that raises the most luscious, velvety, minerally oysters you could ever taste. We picked the oysters out of the water and shucked and ate them on the spot, garnished with nothing but a squirt of lemon juice. To complement the oysters, we had a four-pack of Allagash North Sky, a silky Belgian-inspired stout. It’s a right-roasty 7.5 percent ABV, silky-smooth beer that perfectly complemented our simple seafood lunch. As my pal and Allagash founder Rob Tod describes it: “North Sky is our interpretation of the small batch you can hunt down in Belgium, and we use our house yeast for fermentation. It balances light notes of fruit and sweetness with a roasted-malt character.”
Talea Peach Berry Punch
(Brooklyn, New York)
I’m a big fan of the beers coming out of Talea Beer in New York City. The owners, Tara [Hankinson] and LeAnn [Darland], have become good friends. They do really nice lagers and IPAs, as most good breweries do. But I am most impressed with their fruited-sour program. They believe there is a beer for everyone and that if you say you don’t like beer, it’s only because you haven’t been introduced to the right beer yet. I was born in NYC and began homebrewing there and writing the business plan for my brewery when I lived there in my early 20s, right out of college. Last year, I had a quintessential NYC day with some coworkers. It began with bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches in the park, proceeded through a museum exhibit for the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and concluded with multiple pints of Peach Berry Punch at Talea in Brooklyn. The recipe is inspired by a Berliner weisse: explosive fruit character up front, dry with a medium body. Peach, strawberry, and pink guava create a delightful fruit combo that packs a tart punch.
Ukhamba Beerworx Utywala Sorghum Saison
(Cape Town, South Africa)
Earlier this year, I got to attend the largest craft-brewing conference in Africa in Cape Town with my wife, Mariah. We fell in love with the city and hiked Table Mountain and high-fived some penguins, but the most memorable beer experience of the trip took place at Ukhamba Beerworx, along the docks of Cape Town Harbor, owned by Lethu Tshabangu and his wife Nolu Roxwana-Matiwane. Their flagship is the Utywala Sorghum Saison, which is super-flavorful and refreshing for a 5 percent ABV beer. It uses 40 percent sorghum in the grain bill, alongside barley, and was inspired by the umqombothi his grandmother used to make. It was the first beer in South Africa to use sorghum in any great quantity. It’s fairly dry and quite fruity with a very slight acidity. We all sat around smiling as we drank it together, and our food smiled, too. By that I mean that we paired this beautiful beer with a “smiley,” a local delicacy that is basically a well-seasoned sheep’s head that has been cooked in an open wood fire. The cooking process tightens the flesh on the sheep’s face, so it appears to be smiling as it is presented on a plate. You just tear off pieces with your hand and pass the dish around. It paired beautifully with the Sorghum Saison.
(Roeselare, West Flanders, Belgium)
About four years ago, Mariah, our son Sammy, our brewmaster Mark [Safarik], and I got to tour a bunch of famous breweries in Belgium. A single meal-and-beer pairing stands out. Rodenbach brewmaster Rudi Ghequire knows more about the rich legacy of Belgian brewing than anyone I have met and has been the brewmaster there for more than 40 years. He took us to a sleepy coastal town and introduced us to an old man and a horse working together as one, wading through the shallow tidal pools and pulling a net. The old man had very wrinkled skin from decades of doing this work in the hot sun, and the horse literally had barnacles growing on his shins from spending half his day moving through shallow water. They shared their bounty with us—tiny but delicate salty shrimp caught fresh in the net. We took them to a small corner restaurant where they prepared the shrimp atop a simple salad, and we paired it with a vintage bottle of Rodenbach Alexander. Named after the brewery founder and brewed for their 150th anniversary, this beer is a variant of Rodenbach Original and expresses beautiful fruit acidity with a rosy hue amplified by the addition of cherry juice. We enjoyed it while listening to Rudi share the story of Rodenbach brewery through two centuries.
I first got to participate in a global food festival called Salone del Gusto in Turin, Italy, 14 years ago. It’s kind of like the United Nations of indigenous agricultural ingredients from around the world, and I got to try and bring home exotic fruits and spices to play around with in our brewery. I have been back to this biennial event many times, but it was on this first visit that I met Teo Musso, the founder of Birra Baladin, who is considered the patriarch of Italian craft brewing. He shared his Nora beer with me while we enjoyed lardo sandwiches from a food stall next to his brewery booth on the floor of the festival. Lardo is simply salted pork fatback, and it’s as delicious as it sounds. Teo doesn’t speak much English, and I speak almost no Italian, but once we finished the first of two bottles of Nora, we became fast friends and have stayed close through all these years. Nora is a bold and unique Egyptian- inspired beer brewed with myrrh, ginger, and orange peel. It’s bubbly and dry, fruity with notes of black pepper, and it cut through the scrumptious fatty sandwiches with grace and aplomb.
Herold Czech Wheat Beer 12°
In 2006, I went to Prague with my friend Michael Jackson. Michael was the Yoda of modern beer journalism, and his articles and books published in the ’80s and ’90s brought overdue recognition to marginalized and historic beer styles and breweries from around the world. He loved to talk and drink beer when he was in the breweries or giving a presentation on a stage. But in a car or a train on a road trip, he hardly talked beer at all. He loved to share stories of his other passions: rugby, jazz, and American beat poets. We drove through the farmlands outside of Prague to do a collaborative brew with the historic Herold Brewery. They had their own floor-malting facility at the brewery—dusty and golden from the sunlight shining through the high windows in the big room. We crouched on our haunches atop the piles of grain in this giant room, sipping on their house beer as I worked on a recipe for an imperial pilsner with Michael and Herold’s brewmaster. At first, the brewmaster thought I was joking to target 9 percent ABV for a pilsner and dry hop the shit out of it with their local Saaz hops. He trusted Michael more than he did me, and I don’t blame him. Michael convinced him there was a growing market for high-ABV beers and that dry hopping shouldn’t be just for IPAs. It took the three of us three beers each to align on the recipe and game plan, and I vividly remember the beer we drank. It was ironic that in the birthplace of pilsner, while working on a pilsner recipe, the beer we drank together that day was a top-fermented ale—Herold Czech Wheat Beer. It had a rocky head and was yeasty and clovey, with notes of banana bread and cinnamon. Michael and I snuck out extra bottles for the bus ride back into Prague, talking Charlie Parker and Jack Kerouac the whole way.