I bite into a perfectly cooked bratwurst, but I don’t taste bratwurst. I taste honey and apricots—maybe even the hint of a saison. And as I follow the bit up with a swig of an oak-aged IPA, I can taste as the sweetness of the pork transitions seamlessly to vanilla and then to hops, a continuum of flavor that makes me appreciate both entities anew.
I’m not at a pretentious gastropub paying through the nose for a prix fixe food and beer pairing. I’m on my back porch, grilling up a new line of sausages by Dogfish Head and Coleman Natural Foods (Perdue’s natural food line), sipping on Dogfish Head’s Burton Baton IPA. The bratwurst has a flavor profile designed specifically to be paired with this beer, the result of Coleman’s food scientists teaming up with Dogfish Head brewmasters for months of taste testing and iteration.
The result is that, starting today, select gourmet stores in the Northeast will carry Dogfish Head–branded sausages, including flavors like Spicy Espresso and Heirloom Italian, each flavored with beer reduction. As a consumer snags a pack of their, say, Greek Feta Chicken Brats (infused with actual Midas Touch beer) and flip over the pack, they’ll see two pairing suggestions: a Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale or a Burton Baton IPA. Assumably, that customer might go snag a six-pack to match then, too.
"This is going to be huge," I think as I reach for another sausage that I follow up with Dogish Head’s Sixty-One, an IPA mixed with syrah grape must. It's rare I've felt so gleefully pretentious in my own home.
The truth is, America's renaissance of craft beer is driving an increasingly crowded market. When Dogfish Head launched in 1995, there were 600 craft breweries in the U.S., and maybe a couple opened every week. Today, there are 2,500 craft breweries around the country (the most since the 1880s), and two more open every day. Yet for all the new breweries, craft beer can only claim 6.5% of the $99 billion US beer market.
"I don’t think, mathematically, that the current pace is viable for years to come," Dogfish Head founder and president Sam Calagione admits. "There’s going to be some inevitable shakeout and economic darwinism. Some of these entries won’t make it."
Now Calagione is quick to point out that he doesn’t actually view his fellow craft brewers as competition—that designation belongs to wine, spirits, and the "craft" brewers that are actually owned by international corporations. Besides, he explains, beer drinkers of today aren’t like our fathers were. We don’t decide Schlitz is our go-to beer and drink it every day for eternity. We’re promiscuous. We want to have a "whole quiver" of different craft beers in our fridge.
Even still, Calagione clearly recognizes the value of diversification in an increasingly crowded marketplace, and food is a natural complement of beer. (It’s why Sierra Nevada makes a mustard and Stone has a licensing deal to make hot sauce.) But there hasn’t been a brewery that’s committed to a full lineup of foods, which Dogfish Head saw as a huge, missed opportunity.
"Everyone doesn’t eat out at a restaurant every night, and if you’re driving you can’t have too many beers at a restaurant," Calagione explains. "How do we bring that artisanal-beer dinner concept into the home?"
Food pairings at the supermarket level are by no means a new idea. Companies like Kraft leverage the collective strength of their 55 or so power brands at the supermarket, mixing Oscar Mayer deli meats and Capri Sun juice drinks in the same Lunchables box.
But we haven’t really seen this approach applied to higher-end goods to re-create the fine-dining restaurant experience. Dogfish Head wanted to create a complete meal of what they’re calling "beer-centric foods." So they teamed with Brooklyn Brine to make "hop pickles," and Sea Watch to make chowder (both are on sale now). But the pièce de résistance of the lineup would be a main course protein. Pairing beer and sausages was just a natural fit. Coleman and Dogfish Head struck up a deal to collaborate on a release.
"It started with, we’ll take one bottle of Raison D'Etre and put it into a small, 40-pound batch of meat, mix, and see how it goes," explains Coleman's Brand Director Jody Hallman. From there, a one-year process of R&D followed, in which Coleman and Dogfish Head went from 15 ideas for sausages to 10 mixed and tested sausages, to 5 flavors that would eventually make the cut.
For the Coleman team, mixing beer into recipes was a new challenge. But on top of that, pairing those tastes with another beer brought in a whole other slew of considerations. Because Dogfish Head didn’t want to simply match the taste of a pilsner in a sausage with the same pilsner you were sipping on; they wanted to enhance the complexity of the experience.
"There’s exponentially more flavors when you have one beer in the sausage but have a different beer from our portfolio to pair it with," Calagione explains. (That might sound silly, but he’s absolutely right. I found my home taste-test to be academically fascinating.)
That involved several iterative taste tests with both teams. Were the sausages good on their own? Were they good with beer? Which beers were they best with? Then the sausages were offered at Dogfish Head’s own brewery—and eventually, food truck—where eager customers actually paid to serve as a test market. (It’s the same model the brewery uses to test new beers before taking them nationwide.)
The approach to one sausage was proving particularly tricky: the Italian. While the flavor was always in the running, formulating an Italian sausage for the mass market palate is actually more difficult than one might expect.
"You think Italian is going to be a pretty simplistic flavor profile, but it can be pretty complex because everyone's perception of what it should be differs dramatically," Hallman explains. The solution proposed by Calagione was to try his Sicilian grandma’s family recipe, who’d actually sold sausages out of a storefront while his grandpa made bootleg wine in the basement (a jug would go to the best sausage customers). The story was too good for Coleman to resist.
"We cut our first samples of that, and me and our lead of R&D were like, OK, we’re going to try this, what if it doesn’t taste good?" Hallman laughs. "You get kind of nervous. It could taste great, and that’d be ideal! But the whole time it was like, what if it doesn’t?"
Coleman admits to making some recipe adjustments for commercialization purposes—like saucing a whole hog—but the recipe made it through relatively unfettered. It’s quite spicy for a supermarket product, with a kick of oregano and a strong pepperoni finish.
"You can make the same pork brat for a while, and it kind of feels a little mundane," Hallman confesses. "This project stepped into our culture and really shook it up."
At this point in my tasting, I’m juggling four sausages and three beers while carefully referencing a neatly printed cheat sheet. A bite here. A swig there. But as sensitively as I try to taste, my palate is now shot. The yeast, hops, pork, and seasonings have blended into a cacophony of flavors my mind has grown too tired (or maybe too fuzzy?) to distinguish.
And I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun eating anything that came in shrinkwrap.
Dogfish Head hasn’t just licensed a line of sausages with their logo on it. They’ve found a way to translate a very particular fine-dining experience into processed food. It’s why, even if any old beer and brat will taste fantastic together, Dogfish Head’s will offer something unique.
That is, until every food and beverage company in existence copies the idea. And if they have any sense, they will.
Photos by Mark Wilson/Fast Company and Dogfish Head.