The 2015 James Beard Awards semifinalists were announced last week, and this year four craft brewers have made the cut. But, it's worthwhile to note that in years past, the beer world has been under represented. Only two beer brewers have ever received James Beard awards. In 2003, Fritz Maytag III, then owner of Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, was the first brewer to win a James Beard Award, and in 2008 he took the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement award. Last year Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer and author of The Brewmaster’s Table, became only the second brewer in history to win the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional.
Below, meet the four contenders for 2015:
Rob Tod, Allagash Brewing Company
Rob Tod, the founder of Portland, Maine's Allagash Brewing Company, started the brewery in 1995 as a one-man operation and attributes Allagash's success to his team: "For me, whenever we get recognized for anything really it's a recognition of all the hard work that the eighty five employees have put in for the past twenty years. All the time they've spent getting things right. Whether it's a GABF (Great American Beer Festival) or James Beard, it's recognition of their achievements."
Tod's declaration may be true, but it was his idea that the unique beers of Belgium, with their rich traditions and unusual flavors, needed to be shared with the American public and that those beers had a place in American craft brewing. Not that the American public got it right away. "For the first ten years, no one wanted to drink Belgian craft beer, we couldn’t give it away," Tod joked. "But, we’ve been blessed for the last ten years with a lot of growth."
And grow Allagash has. From its first beer (Allagash White, which was modeled after the traditional Witbiers of Belgium brewed with wheat, Curaçao orange peel and coriander) to its current portfolio of six year round beers, seven yearly releases, and numerous one-offs and keg only releases, Allagash has become an award-winning craft brewery venerated worldwide.
Beers to try from Allagash: Tod recommends the limited edition beer Farm to Face, which is a Pale Ale that has been fermented with wild yeast and aged for ten months with funky bacteria strains and three pounds of fresh peaches (grown on a friend's farm in New Hampshire) per gallon of beer. Also try the GABF gold medal winning Allagash Tripel, a 9% Belgian-style Strong Golden Ale with notes of passion fruit, banana and honey. And of course there's always Allagash White, still arguably one of the best Belgian-style Witbiers to be produced by an American brewer.
Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales
The late, great, beer critic Michael Jackson once called Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales "America’s most interesting and adventurous small brewery." Its founder and president, Sam Calagione, is a major force in craft beer and has inspired many homebrewers to take the leap to professional brewing. He’s written three books (Brewing Up a Business, Extreme Brewing, and He Said Beer, She Said Wine) and was the star of the Discovery Channel series Brew Masters. A far cry from Calagione’s humble beginnings in 1995 when he launched Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. His original plan was to bring unique beer, food and music to the area. At the time, it was the smallest commercial brewery in America. Calagione brewed his first beers on a tiny twelve gallon system, but Dogfish Head’s popularity grew quickly and by 1999 he was brewing five year-round bottled brands that were available in about a dozen states. Just three years later in 2002 Dogfish moved into a 100,000 square foot converted cannery, where it remains today.
Now, in its 20th year, Dogfish Head brews nearly twenty styles of beer and is available in twenty five states. The brewery has been revered for its plethora of craft beer styles including the continuously hopped (60, 90 and 120 minute) Imperial IPA series, their Ancient Ales series (the most stunning beer in this group being Chicha, a corn beer native throughout Central and South American that uses a method of moistening the grain in one’s mouth to release the starches). Calagione also has a distillery, Dogfish Head Distillery, where he makes vodka, rum and gin.
This James Beard nod comes after a big year for Dogfish Head who took home the silver medal at 2014’s Great American Beer Festival for Choc Lobster, a Porter brewed with cocoa nibs and Maine lobster that Calagione says is, "pulled from the water in front of the brewery by my best bro from boyhood, Lobsterman Colin Yentsch." Calagione is also in the process of getting a bigger distillery online in 2015 and will start distributing spirits from New York City to other mid Atlantic cities by the fall.
Beers to try from Dogfish Head: Calagione recommends trying Sixty-One, which is an IPA fermented with stray grapes: "It's dry and fruity and a very food friendly beer." Or try Namaste, a Belgian-style wheat beer. "Ours is made with fermented orange flesh (instead of dried orange peel) and lemongrass," Calagione says. Both are sold year-round in all states that sell Dogfish. Also of note, the previously mentioned Choc Lobster will be released on draught later this spring regionally from New York City to Virginia.
Jim Koch, The Boston Beer Company
When Jim Koch, a sixth generation brewer and founder of The Boston Beer Company, released Samuel Adams' Boston Lager in 1985, it was carried in less than thirty accounts. By 1990 he was brewing over 30,000 barrels a year and now Boston Beer Company is the largest craft beer company in the US (and fifth largest beer company in the world), brewing over two million barrels, releasing about sixty beers in 2014. Considered by many to be the father of the craft beer revolution, Jim Koch, who fought the big boys of the beer industry and won, is still humbled by his James Beard Foundation semifinalist nom.
Koch has had to face an ever-changing craft beer environment driven by a fan base that is on a constant hunt for the next great discovery. How does Sam Adams, an industry stalwart for more than thirty years, keep up with the current craft beer environment? "One of the best parts of brewing, other than sampling the finished brews, is creating new beers and no new beer is created the same way," says Koch. "We’re constantly asking ourselves 'What if?' and 'How can we?' We’re constantly experimenting with recipes and new ingredients in our nanobrewery, a ten gallon brewery operating independently. The smaller scale provides the opportunity to test new beers, special ingredients and recipe tweaks in multiple, separate small batches."
Beers to try from Samuel Adams: Koch recommends his beloved Samuel Adam Boston Lager. "It’s the beer I keep in my fridge at home and the beer I drink almost every day. Of course, I’m biased, but it’s a beautiful beer that is well-balanced and complex." Samuel Adams is also currently making an astounding range of beers. Try the delicious Samuel Adams Cream Stout, made with roasted chocolate and caramel malts. It's roasty and toasty, with a waft of smoke. Or sample their New WorldTripel, a fruity and herbaceous 10% ABV Belgian-style strong ale.
Mike Floyd, Nick Floyd & Simon Floyd, Three Floyds Brewing
They're a little scary, they're a lot heavy metal, and they're definitely not normal. This is Munster, Indiana's Three Floyds Brewing. Founded by brothers Nick and Simon and their father Mike Floyd in 1996 with "a five-barrel Frankenstein wok-burner-fired brew kettle, repurposed open Swiss cheese fermenters, and an old Canfield's Cola tank," Three Floyds has become one of the best craft breweries in the world, with a devoted following amongst aficionados.
Known for their hoppy beers like the 66 IBU American Pale Ale Alpha King, or the 9.5% ABV Imperial IPA Dreadnaught, Three Floyds has an in-your-face approach that applies to both the powerful flavors of their beers and the apocalyptic artwork on their labels. But don't pigeon-hole them into the "extreme hoppy beer" category. Three Floyds is doing some great things. They are barrel-aging. They are making monthly seasonal beers, and they regularly collaborate with other brewers like Denmark's "phantom" Mikkeller and California's The Bruery.
Perhaps what Three Floyds is most famous for is the very rare Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout. This mahogany brown 15% ABV viscous ale is brewed with Intelligentsia coffee, vanilla and molasses, and is only available once a year on "Dark Lord Day" at the Three Floyds Brewpub. About 8,000 tickets to this heavy metal music filled event sell out in minutes.
Beers to try from Three Floyds: It's tough to get, but brewed year round, Zombie Dust is a delicious intensely hopped American Pale Ale made with fruity Citra Hops. Or try Three Floyds flagship beer Alpha King. This bold but balanced 6.66% ABV Pale Ale has notes of caramel sweetness that are balanced by aggressive citrus hoppiness. Three Floyds is currently only distributed in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Wisconsin.