"We're all buddies down here," said Andrew Harton, head brewer of the new Big Oyster Brewery in Lewes, Del., talking about the beer community that has grown fast along the Delaware beach towns in the last few years. "And we always laugh and say: 'We're not making beer anymore; we're just ordering pallets of fruit!' "
One could definitely get that impression from the colorful sours I tasted during my recent visit to a pair of breweries. The usual amber, gold, and straw clarity of traditional beer styles on the menu were overshadowed by the deep purple, ruby red, and pinkish haze of the tart ales infused with fruit that I sipped at Big Oyster and the Dewey Beer Co., where the sour ale series is known as "the Secret Machine" and sometimes gets churned into a slushy.
"The slushy is something we'd never have done a couple years ago because it doesn't follow beer rules," said Dewey Beer co-owner Brandon Smith. "Thankfully, people are following beer rules less and less these days."
The strawberry-guava pucker of my sour beer slushy? Delicious — if you like a frozen daiquiri. I wouldn't call it beer. It had none of the subtle textures and fizz, hoppy pop, or malty complexity of a true liquid brew. That was lost on the warm seaside breeze that happily whistled through the roll-up garage door walls of the Dewey Beer Co., which sits on a beach block corner as close to the sand as perhaps any in brewery America.
The slushy wasn't for me. But I found many of the other beers at both breweries plenty appealing, not to mention well made. And it seems only fitting that a beer scene anchored by Dogfish Head — such a pioneer in the "weird beer" genre that its early additives (raisins, chocolate, crystallized ginger, algae) no longer seem entirely weird — should still be driven by an unconventional spirit. Rehoboth's Revelation Craft Brewing Co., for example, last year won a GABF award for a gluten-free sour ale.
It also makes sense that a beer scene that bustles in summer's heat should gravitate toward styles that accentuate the quench factor more than bitter hops. Even the hazy IPAs at Dewey Beer Co. aspire to be less bitter and herbaceous than the trendy "New England" style. It's more a milder "Mid-Atlantic" twist, said Smith, whose recent one-off batch of "Send Lawyers Guns and Money" accentuated the creamy body of oats and juicy candy notes of Vic Secret hops. The kettle-soured Secret Machine variations I tasted — peach-blueberry; boysenberry-vanilla — were simple but refreshing, with a measured tartness that didn't pander to sweetness but that also stopped far shy of full-on pucker.
At the massive red barn of Big Oyster's new location in Lewes, an element of wild yeast and barrel-aging adds extra levels of complexity. Harton, a veteran of Iron Hill (which just opened its own big new branch in Rehoboth), makes a stellar oyster stout from the calcium-rich shells produced by the raw bar.
But look especially for the character-filled tart beers named after women. Isabelle is deep purple from 200 pounds of blueberry and raspberry puree with a touch of lactose that was so sippable, I understood why the guys next to me took a growler to go. A beer called Sarah, meanwhile, spoke to Harton's blending passion. A golden ale infused with mango was barrel-aged in used cabernet barrels, then blended with a witbier aged with grape must in barrels inoculated with brettanomyces wild yeast. The result is funky and tart, but it finishes with a long, dry, peppery savor. The fruit lends color and character, but the brewmaster and his yeast did their jobs, because Isabelle definitely tasted like beer.
— Craig LaBan