11/29/2009 02:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale: An Impressively Sane Entry By America's Best Crazy Brewery

Over the past decade, Dogfish Head has become perhaps the most prominent microbrewery on the East Coast, and almost certainly the most notorious. Their founder and brewmaster, Sam Calagione, is pretty clearly cracked. They favor sweet high-alcohol barleywines, from riffs on Belgian styles, to reconstructions of ancient recipes from China (Chateau Jiahu), the Aztec Empire (Theobroma), and Finland (Sah'tea, rating: 69), to whatever Sam thinks might be cool. Their beers often range from 12-20% alcohol, almost sickeningly sweet for beer. Depending on the batch, they might taste like fortified wine, or they might taste like Manischewitz.

Thanks to the reliable success of their terrific 60 Minute IPA (rating: 85) and 90 minute IPA (rating: 88), they can afford to indulge his eccentric streak, especially because when it comes to crazy beer, they're about the only show in town. But their best beers are their standbys, the IPAs and their successful IPA hybrid, Indian Brown Ale.

The 60 Minute IPA is how Dogfish Head made its name, but it's atypical: it's only 6% ABV, and it's a hoppy, well-balanced but moderately bitter beer. The 90 Minute is more typical of the rest of their styles, 9% ABV and correspondingly sweeter, so that the hops are no longer the dominant flavor. They tend to overshadow the Indian Brown, but it nobly holds its own, fitting in nicely between the two in body and alcohol content.

Though the 90 Minute is called an India Pale Ale, it's anything but pale in color, body or flavor, so the Indian Brown isn't nearly as dissimilar as the names might indicate. (India Pale Ale was originally created for the Royal Navy, who hopped their beers prodigiously so they wouldn't spoil on the round-the-world voyage to the colony in India. "India," therefore, implies a well-hopped, and often bitter, beer.) Brown Ale is another classic English style, generally emphasizing the malted barley over bitter hops, less thick than a porter or stout and less bitter than an India Pale Ale. A number of American craft breweries have fine beers in this style, from Brooklyn's simple, classic Brown Ale (rating: 83) to Smuttynose Old Brown Dog (rating: 82).

Dogfish Head's Indian Brown is a cut above, as they follow their instinct toward excess, adding more barley and hops, ending up with a beer that's 7.2% ABV, dryer than the 90 Minute but sweeter than the 60 Minute, fuller-bodied than other brown ales but far less thick than Dogfish Head's more unwieldy barleywines. It's not far from a porter in crispness, and far better than Dogfish Head's surprisingly weaker Chicory Stout (rating: 65). It's perhaps the perfect expression of Dogfish Head's strengths -- a full body, a good use of sweet barley to counteract bitter hops, and stylistic fusion -- in perfect balance. Dogfish Head earned a lot of capital by coming up with beers this good. Wherever their pipe dreams lead, thanks to the Indian Brown and the IPAs, they'll always remain one of America's great breweries.

Rating: 87

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.