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Beer from fungus-infected grapes is anything but rotten

Dogfish Head

Dogfish Head's Noble Rot sells for $13 a bottle, but less than 4,000 cases were produced so if you want to try it you need to do a little detective work.

On its surface, Dogfish Head’s Noble Rot is kind of off-putting. It’s a Saison-style ale brewed with fungus-infected viognier grapes. The label features a creepy nobleman and a decayed Dogfish Head logo. And it has “rot” in the title. 

But this brew represents everything that’s great about craft beer in America.

Let’s start with just how creative and gutsy the concept is. Dogfish Head started with a pretty straightforward recipe for a spicy Belgian farmhouse ale, and infused it with grape “must,” a fancy term for the freshly-pressed juice, skin, seeds and stems of grapes.  But we’re not talking about any grapes here; these viognier grapes have been infected with the botrytis fungus and are covered in a grey mold. While it may sound sketchy, the fungus actually intensifies the character of the grapes, making them both sweeter and more tart. 

Some vineyards use these infected grapes to produce interesting wines, and it was on a trip to Washington State that Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione tasted one. He says it was an epiphany for him. “I was like, holy crap this is good,” he said, followed immediately by, “Holy crap, I think we can make a really amazing beer using this.” Sam checked the label and saw the wine was produced by Alexandria Nicole Cellars, so he called them up and said let’s make a beer together. 

“The 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,” Sam said. “So we saw a great opportunity to get our chocolate in their peanut butter.” He found a willing partner in Jarrod Boyle, co-founder of Prosser, Wash.’s Alexandria Nicole Cellars.  Jarrod came out to Dogfish Head’s Delaware facility to help brew Noble Rot.

Noble Rot Q&A with Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione

The result is a 50.5% beer / 49.5% wine hybrid that is quite sophisticated.  Pour it, and you are greeted with a straw yellow body and nice foamy head that leaves plenty of lacing clinging to the sides of your glass.  The nose is an interesting mixture of dry white wine and the barnyard funk of Saison ale. Upon taking a sip, you’re greeted with a pretty intense tartness from the botrytis-infected grapes, followed by an undercurrent of spiciness that comes from the use of Belgian yeast.  There’s also a hint of green apple in the middle of all this action.  The beer finishes supremely dry, making you want to take another sip.  All in all, it’s a pretty neat beverage.

Sam described the flavor of Noble Rot as “a wine in the front, and a beer at the end,” to which I said, “It sounds like a mullet in a glass.” He laughed and said, “that’ll freak out the wine purists even more.” And while freaking out the wine purists isn’t the reason Dogfish Head brewed Noble Rot, it points to another thing that’s great about craft beer – it’s almost impossible for it to be pretentious.  

Avoiding pretentiousness is one reason Calagione chose the name Noble Rot, a wine term for the process by which botrytis fungus intensifies the flavor of grapes. He thought it’d be more fun to have people to ask themselves, “Am I really going to spend $13 on a champagne bottle full of something with ‘Rot’ in the title?” 

My guess here is the answer is “yes.”  Dogfish Head made less than 4,000 cases of Noble Rot, so if you’d like a taste, you’d better act quickly.  Many places aren’t putting the Noble Rot out, so you should probably ask for it at your local beer store if you don’t see it on the shelves, or call ahead and save yourself a trip.

One last note here for my wife and other people who worry about cooties.  The botrytis-infected viognier grapes are added into the brew kettle right after the boil and sit for at least half an hour at temperatures above 180 degrees.  This in essence pasteurizes the beer, killing off the fungus.  Besides, Noble Rot isn’t even the grossest beer Dogfish Head has ever brewed. That honor goes to their Chicha beer, inspired by the ancient Peruvuan tradition of chewing corn and spitting it into a bucket to begin the fermentation process.  If their spit beer didn’t hurt anyone, Noble Rot surely won’t!

If you’re in the New York City area on March 3, Dogfish Head will be pouring samples of Noble Rot at the NYC American Craft Beer Festival in the Connoisseur Room. I’ll be covering the event for TODAY.com, so perhaps I’ll see you there.

Jim Galligan is co-founder of the Beer and Whiskey Brothers blog, where he and his brother Don cover the ever-evolving world of craft beer and distilled spirits.

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