IN terms of unusual beer ingredients, corn that’s been chewed-up and spat out would likely top the list.
Some might even say it would also top the list of most disgusting beer ingredients too. But it’s not as unhygienic as you might think.
Part of the brewing process includes boiling it for an hour, which well and truly kills off any remnants of saliva - and whatever other potential causes for concern may have been lurking in there.
The beer is called chicha, it’s a beer that comes from Peru and is traditionally made by chewing up corn and spitting it out.
The reason? Because saliva has enzymes that break down the starch in corn so the yeast can ferment it and turn it into alcohol.
Chicha may have forever remained a Peruvian thing were it not for Sam Calagione, so-called ‘‘rock star brewer’’ and founder US brewery Dogfish Head.
A man who sees brewing as an artform and has a desire to stretch the boundaries wherever possible, Calagione decided his brewery would make a batch of chicha every two years - and his employees would help.
‘‘We have 240 people who work in our company and we send an email out in advance saying anyone who wants to help make this batch of beer, we are going to deliver to you two five-gallon buckets,’’ Calagione said.
‘‘One of them had two pounds of dried corn in it and the other was empty.
‘‘We asked that over the course of one day you chew the stuff in the one bucket, make little corn cakes and put them them in the other bucket.
‘‘The next day we make the chicha beer.’’
It is worth pointing out that the corn chewers volunteered for the task, while also doing their regular Dogfish Head job.
‘‘We can’t force anyone to chew corn for hours at a time,’’ Calagione says.
‘‘That would not be cool with our human resources department.’’
Calagione is in Australia with his family for a bit of a working holiday, which included making a beer at Brookvale’s Nomad Brewing, with 10 contest winners who had subscribed to Pallet - a magazine for beer geeks where he is the executive editor.
And I managed to be one of the 10 winners. And there was no sign of any corn in the recipe this time.
Instead we’d be making a scotch ale, but with mesquite-smoked malt, roasted wattleseed, finger limes, maple crystals and a hybrid yeast from Italy. And when I say ‘‘we’d be making’’ the beer, I mean ‘‘we’d each pour in one of the ingredients”.
So if you ever have this beer - it will be released in Australia and the United States - and decide the maple crystals taste awesome, well it just might be down to my pouring ability.
On top of that, we also brainstormed the name of the beer- ‘‘Cross-Pallet-Nation’’ (cross-pollination, geddit?) and tried our hands at designing a label.
This was new to some of us but Calagione had been doing it since he opened up Dogfish Head in 1995, brewing all sorts of beers.
This includes the Ancient Ales series, one of which was Midas Touch, a beer whose recipe was based on a chemical analysis of 2700 year-old clay vessels found in the tomb of King Midas in Turkey.
Other beers in the series also had their recipes based on pottery uncovered in archaeological digs. Calagione says the initial appeal of the Ancient Ales series was that it served as an education of how beer was once made.
‘‘We’ve decelerated our emphasis on the Ancient Ales series because globally the average beer lover is not as surprised that ingredients other than water, yeast, hops and barley can be in a beer,’’ he said.
‘‘When we started doing the Ancient Ales 15 years ago there weren’t many breweries globally making beers with anything other that water, yeast, hops and barley.
‘‘Now that the scene for more creative brewing has exploded we feel like we don’t have to keep preaching ‘oh look at what our ancestors did’.’’
That growth in creative brewing also changes Calagione’s approach to brewing generally. His brewery made its name in the early days of craft beer by making what were for the time weird, strange or extreme beers.
But these days a lot of other craft breweries are making weird or unusual beers, which prompted a change of tactics from Calagione. He won’t make the same beer that a rival brewery already has on the market, nor will he continue to push the edges of weirdness just for the sake of it.
‘‘For us we just want to make sure our journey is about being well differentiated and creative,’’ he says.
‘‘Not for the sake of just being weird but for the purpose of creating a really enticing liquid.’’
There is little point in looking for Dogfish Head beers in Australian bottle shops. Calagione’s beers are only available in 31 states in the United States, so he’s likely to expand in his home country before exporting halfway around the world.
Which isn’t to say he doesn’t like Australia; he’s got a soft spot for the place ever since he and wife Mariah (who is vice president at Dogfish Head) attended the University of NSW in 1991, living at Coogee Bay in Sydney.
It was at university in Sydney, studying writing, that Calagione found one of the inspirations that led him to create Dogfish Head.
‘‘I want to give a shout-out to a professor named Billy Marshall Stoneking,’’ Calagione says.
‘‘He was born in America but was a professor at the University of NSW. I don’t know if he’s still there but he was very inspirational for me in terms of saying ‘hey Sam you’ve got a great creative voice, follow your passions, don’t get a nine to five job, do something creative’.
‘‘He was very instrumental in getting me to trust my creative journey.’’
Calagione sees other craft brewers as compatriots not competitors, which is why he will involve himself in collaborations with other brewers, such as Nomad.
For him, it's a case of a rising tide floating all boats in the battle to win people over from mainstream beer to craft beer. He's no great fan of the massive mainstream breweries – he’s knocked back their offers to buy Dogfish Head – but is circumspect about what he says publicly about them.
After all, big companies have big legal departments.
But were you to offer him one of their beers, he’s unlikely to throw it back in your face in disgust.
“I’m a beer geek, I’m not a beer snob,” he says.
“If someone hands me a Bud. Miller or Coors I guess I’ll drink it, but I’d never buy a beer from Bud, Miller or Coors. That’s because my heart is with independent craft breweries around the world and keeping it about the creativity of brewing first instead of making money first, which is what public companies have to focus on.”
That distinction Calagione makes between a beer geek and a beer snob is important. In the broader community, the image of the “beer hipster” has come to the fore. The stereotype has them sporting a big bushy beard and banging on about how much better the beer they like is than the swill you’re drinking.
That, Calagione says, is an example of a beer snob. And that’s someone many other beer lovers hate too.
“For me, beer snobs have the equal beer IQ as beer geeks,” he says.
“They might know just as much as beer geeks but beer snobs are into beer to be elitists and secular and lord it over people. Beer geeks are people who are evangelists.
“They want to share their passion for beer with other adventurous people.”