Beer Review 0553: Dogfish Head Kvasir Ancient Ale

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Here’s the latest in Dogfish Head’s (Milton, Delaware) Ancient Ales series, a group of beers based on recipes that are thousands of years old. All are facilitated with the help of Dr. Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

First off, Kvasir — in Norse mythology, Kvasir was born of the saliva of two groups of gods,  Æsir and Vanir. The beer connection? Kvasir traveled far and wide, spreading knowledge; upon his death, his blood was drained and mixed with honey, resulting in the Mead of Poetry.

Back to reality.

Present-day Kvasir, in beer form, takes inspiration from a 3,500 year old Danish drinking vessel. Made of birch bark, the vessel was found in the tomb of a leather-clad woman, who Dr. McGovern says was likely a priestess. After analyzing botanical and pollen evidence taken from the 3,500 year old drinking cup, some unique ingredients were found to have once been at home — wheat, lingonberries, cranberries, myrica gale, yarrow, honey, and birch syrup.

As with most Dogfish Head beers, we’ll tell you what some of the more head-scratching ingredients are:

Ligonberries – a short evergreen shrub that bears an edible fruit. A staple in Sweden, the berries are tart and often made into jam. For this beer, the berries were bog-grown.
Myrica Gale – a species of flowering plant found in western Europe; has a sweet resinous scent and is a traditional insect repellant used by campers. Was used to flavor beer in the Middle Ages until hops became widely available.
Yarrow – A flowering plant native to Europe, known for its use in clotting blood. In fact, a slang name for yarrow is “nosebleed plant.” Again, used in the Middle Ages to flavor beer until hops became in vogue.

Kvasir comes in at 10% ABV (alcohol by volume) and only 13 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). The beer is a limited release. While all the above ingredients were discovered in the ancient drinking vessel, the bottle says the following: “ancient ale brewed with ligonberry, cranberry, birch syrup, honey, cranberry juice, and herbs.” Your guess is as good as mine if those “herbs” are myrica gale or yarrow or maybe something else. Guess you’d have to know what myrica gale and yarrow taste like to be sure, eh? More on that in a second.

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The pour delivers a beautiful beer, capped by a large, creamy eggshell white head that is long lasting. The beer is a nice deep orange color, with an exceptionally clear body, and no particles or sediment. Lacing is awesome, leaving behind a substantial thick coating of foam, and the head regenerates easily when swirled.

On the nose is where things start to get a bit ridiculous. Kvasir is quite bland; there’s no complexity here, just some wheat sweetness, cranberries, and apple peel. There’s a faint bit of perfume-like aroma hiding in there, which probably has something to do with the yeast, but it mainly serves to enhance the cranberry. There’s a little of the 10% alcohol present, but it’s not in any way overwhelming. In fact, nothing on this aroma is overwhelming. It’s very underwhelming.

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While the flavors aren’t boring, they aren’t all that inspiring, either. There’s cranberry and apple peel up front, two doses of sweet to one mild hit of tart. There’s definitely some herbal notes going on, but I can’t tell you exactly what they taste like — it’s not an herb I’ve had before, so maybe it’s the myrica gale or yarrow? Those aren’t exactly ingredients in, well…anything I’ve ever had, so… The finish ramps up the tartness just a bit, which dries out the palate. Lingering taste includes cranberry and lemon peel — hey, cranberry lemonade! Yes, that’s pretty much what this tastes like, with alcohol. And score one for Dogfish, the alcohol is well hidden. This beer is light-bodied, with a medium, foamy mouthfeel.

Rant mode on: this is Imperial Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Or a beverage of that ilk. Look, I appreciate what Dogfish are doing with “ancient ales,” but where the rubber fails to meet the road is the fact that I shelled out $13.99 for this bottle and the payoff is highly alcoholic cranberry-lemonade. There’s nothing wrong with the taste of this beer. Nothing. It’s pleasant, and I enjoy the interplay between sweet and tart. And I can even, somewhat grudgingly, get behind the history. But when you throw a bunch of ingredients at me that 95% of the beer drinking population has to look up on Wikipedia and then charge premium and we’re left with a beer that tastes good but has no complexity, no challenge to it, nothing worth returning to? I get cranky.

This is the problem with Dogfish Head these days. You know — they should seriously try to make, say, a Pale Ale, and make it a classic representation of the style. No smoke and mirrors, no looking ingredients up on Wikipedia. I bet it would be great. But such is the modus operandi for Dogfish, especially after being on television and achieving celebrity status…

Bottom line: if you can find this at a discount, try it. But don’t pay top dollar for Kvasir. You’ll only be disappointed.

Dogfish Head Kvasir Ancient Ale, 76 points. Price: $13.99 US for one 750 ml. bottle.

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