Can a beer taste like a band sounds?
It's an esoteric question but one the proudly esoteric alchemists at the Delaware craft beer company Dogfish Head don't mind asking again and again. Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" was translated into an imperial stout mixed with honey beer and African gesho root in honor of the album's 40th anniversary in 2010, and Pearl Jam was distilled into a black currant-infused Belgian ale for the 20th anniversary of the group's debut album "Ten" in 2011.
In 2013, the brewery's founder and president Sam Calagione honored the Grateful Dead with American Beauty, an imperial pale ale created in collaboration with the band. This year Dogfish is bringing the beer back with a new label in honor of the band's Fare Thee Well shows, which took place over two days in Santa Clara, Calif., last week and three more this weekend in Chicago. (You can get a look at the beer's original label here.)
Dogfish Head called upon the Dead's fans for input on the recipe, and after receiving what the brewery said were 1,500 suggestions, organic granola stood out as the top choice. Of course, granola may have won by default considering what ingredients immediately come to mind when you think of the Grateful Dead, but you can't blame Dogfish for not being located in Colorado. (At least, mercifully, spirulina and patchouli didn't make the cut.)
But how does it taste? To find out, I tried putting myself in the proper mindset -- settle down, I mean putting my copy of the live album "Europe '72" on the turntable with the idea that, if nothing else, maybe a 9% alcohol by volume beer will illuminate the sound of a band that, despite all its acclaim and cultish devotion, has mostly sailed right over my head.
Given that, for expert assistance I called on my wife, who for a time in the '90s caught several Dead shows around the country and could speak to the devout claim on the bottle that "There was something different about a Dead show. Whether you saw one or 100 you felt it. If only you could have bottled it..."
After an abortive start where I accidentally kicked off the album on Side 5 with "Truckin'" (never a fan's first choice, apparently), we settled in with "Jack Straw" and gave Dogfish's offering a try.
Granola isn't immediately apparent, but anyone familiar with pale ales and hoppier amber beers will find something familiar here. The beer has a bready, almost oaty smell, and a bit reminiscent of "hippie bread," according to my guide.
She also caught a smell of burnt orange peel, and while I can't vouch for that, the beer did gradually grow into a greater balance of light malt sweetness with a nutty hop bitterness, revealing caramely hints of apricot, honey and maybe even raisin -- though the last was probably a bit of projection given the granola conceit.
In short, the beer was delicious and getting better, and the Dead was also warming up to me with "China Cat Sunflower" giving way to the open-air drive of "I Know You Rider" (an undeniably great shift, even for a neophyte) and "Tennessee Jed," which amiably loped by on a twangy guitar melody and Jerry's airy vocal.
I was also getting a little cotton-mouthed -- is that the hops? It must be the hops.
"It tastes like a hippie beer," my wife said appreciatively during "He's Gone" -- the source, I learned, of "steal your face," something I saw emblazoned on carnival midway prizes as a kid. The flavors were a balanced but rich meeting of bitter and sweet, just the thing for a Deadhead during, let's say, festive conditions.
Did Dogfish Head make me a fan of the Grateful Dead? Not really, but the two sounded good together, which maybe isn't surprising for someone already predisposed toward craft IPAs and listening to records.
As for the band, I'm no closer to appreciating Bob Weir's voice or discerning one "Dark Star" from another. I'm mostly left with a lingering impression sure to be repeated around Chicago this weekend, long after the music has rang across Soldier Field and the #Dead50 tweets are buried: You just had to be there.