The following is a part of a guest series authored by Lauren Gutshall on discovering new wines and beers.
I’m going out on a limb this week. For the first time instead of looking at a general style of beer, I’m going to focus on a very specific beer – Dogfish Head 120 minute IPA.
Dogfish Head 120 Minute is a one-of-a-kind beer, over-hopped to the point of tasting sweet instead of bitter. It has an amazingly high ABV – around 18-20 percent – but only has a whiff of alcohol on the nose. It’s got vibrant fruit notes and a sweet caramel taste. It’s one of my all-time favorite beers (especially when I get it on tap), and it’s so unique that it deserves its own discussion.
When I have 120 Minute, I feel like I’m drinking my dessert. I don’t want anything with it – no chocolate, no fruit, no cheesecake. I feel that same way when I drink ice wine (or icewine, as it’s written in Canada).
By the most straight-forward definition, ice wine is produced by letting the grapes sit on the vine until after they freeze. Because the water in the grapes will freeze but the sugars will not, the juice pressed from the frozen grapes is extremely concentrated and very sweet.
The first ice wine was created in Germany in 1794 by happy accident: a winemaker left the grapes on the vines too long and they froze. Instead of discarding the crop, he decided to press the grapes into wine and discovered that frozen grapes produced a sweet, syrupy wine.
While Germany still makes ice wines, Canada has become the number one producer of the style. The wineries at Niagara-on-the-Lake are particularly well known for their ice wines. The area consistently freezes, making ice wine production more predictable than in other places.
The process to make ice wine is incredibly labor intensive. First, the grapes have to freeze under near-perfect conditions. The grapes must be ripe, so they hang on the vine past harvest season, and then they must experience a “hard freeze,” which in Canada is required by law to be 17° F (-8° C). If the freeze occurs too late, the grapes will rot. If it’s too cold, the grapes won’t produce any juice at all.
Once the grapes undergo a sustained freeze, they are harvested under strict conditions: the frozen grapes are picked by hand and processed immediately so that they are pressed while still frozen. The sweetness of the resulting wine is balanced by high acidity and moderate alcohol content.
The two grapes most commonly used to make ice wine are Riesling and Vidal. Like Riesling, Vidal tends to have citrus and tropical fruit characteristics that deepen when made into a dessert wine. Ice wines typically taste of apricots, pineapple and peaches with underlying hints of banana, caramel and vanilla. Ice wines are medium to full bodied, and tend to become darker and richer as they age in the bottle.
These characteristics are similar to those of Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, which has strong apricot and citrus notes. Like ice wine, it is a medium to full-bodied beer that has a distinct syrup-like viscosity.
A lot of time and energy is put into the production of 120 Minute. It’s boiled for 120 minutes and then dry-hopped every day for a month. After that, it is aged for another month on whole leaf hops. The beer clocks in at an exorbitant 120 IBUs (IBU = international bittering units.)
One of the fascinating things for me is that despite the constant hopping and the insane IBUs, 120 Minute doesn’t have the hop bitterness of Dogfish Head’s 60 or 75 Minute IPAs. Instead it has sweetness due to residual sugar that balances the hop character and adds complexity to the beer. The citrus and tropical fruit taste is accompanied by vanilla and caramel – flavors I normally associate with darker, maltier beers not IPAs. The flavors meld together to produce a beer that has beautiful complexity and depth of flavor.
Like most dessert beer and wines, you can try pairing 120 Minute and ice wines with different foods, but they deserve the spotlight. I personally prefer them by themselves because of their decadence.