By Mike Pomranz
Updated October 27, 2015
Courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

As Dogfish Head brewery lore tells it, back in the early ‘90s, “a 20-something waiter in New York City named Sam” made his very first homebrew, adding a bag of cherries he spotted at his local bodega because he “thought they’d make his beer a little more interesting.” His friends liked that first brew so much that he immediately began looking into how to open a brewery, and by June of 1995, Dogfish Head was born.

For the 20 years that followed those fateful days, Sam Calagione has been one brewing’s most prominent figures. And to celebrate the brand’s 20th anniversary, Dogfish Head will be releasing a fittingly larger-than-life tribute to that very first homebrew – a new beer called Higher Math.

This monster 17-percent ABV golden ale, brewed not only with cherries (here, in the form of sour cherry juice) but also with cocoa nibs, is certainly a reinterpretation, not a recreation. “It's a lot bigger, denser and more complex,” Calagione explained to me, comparing Higher Math to his legendary first brew. “The Higher Math we are now selling tastes more like a big ol' chocolate cherry birthday cake in liquid form.”

Modelling an anniversary beer after a birthday cake makes sense, but what’s up with that huge ABV? Calagione had an answer locked and loaded for that question as well. “We wanted … a beer that stands the test of time,” he said. “Alcohol in a beer acts as a preservative. Certain beers can age as well as a fine Bordeaux and Higher Math is one of those beers. We recommend hardcore beer lovers buy two bottles of Higher Math – one to enjoy within weeks of buying it and one to lay down in their beer and wine cellar for many years. It will evolve and gain complexity – perhaps pull it out in another 20 years.” It’s worth noting that early information about the beer shows the brewery was shooting for a fitting 20 percent ABV, but fell a little short on this final release; it’s probably best they showed some discretion.

The beer itself was nothing like what I expected. Hearing “cocoa nibs,” my brewing brain immediately thought dark like a stout, but this golden ale pours a hazy autumn rust color, beautifully sweeping across the glass from red to orange. Cherry truffles immediately strike the nose, followed by other cake and candy-like scents including even a bit of strawberry shortcake and peanut butter cup. The taste remains equally focused on these key flavors: sour cherry sweetness that wafts into a delicate dairy milk chocolate before eventually giving way to that powerful alcohol. I can easily see how these distinct flavors could continuously coalesce with aging. It’s also perfectly ready to drink right now, especially as a pairing with a chocolate dessert – a pairing I recommend at a minimum. Unless you’re planning to get hammered, make sure to have lots and lots of food on hand.

It’s a big beer for a big Dogfish Head moment. “We are proud and humbled by our success,” says Calagione reflecting on the past 20 years, “and I am thankful to each of my 230-ish ‘off-centered’ co-workers for their critical contributions to our journey.”

For those looking to line their beer cellars with Higher Math, the celebratory brew is set to be released on November 6. Yes, that’s more than a few months behind the brewery’s actual anniversary, but the always quick Calagione even had an explanation for the delay. “For such a monumental milestone, we are celebrating for 365 days!” he quipped.

Perfect. I was looking for an excuse to drink every day this year anyway. Though hopefully not all of those beers will clock in at 17 percent or else 2015 could turn into a serious mess.