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A Collaboration Is Brewing: Meet "Life & Limb" Beer

The beer world is a pretty unique place. While most captains of industry wouldn't dream of giving away trade secrets, brewers aren't afraid to share their recipes and collaborate. "You wouldn't find Google and Yahoo! building a website together," Ken Grossman joked during his introduction of Life & Limb, a collaboration between his brewery, Sierra Nevada, and Sam Calagione's Dogfish Head. The two breweries are fairly different in their takes on craft beer. Sierra, based in Chico, is one of the original craft breweries, known for their superb Pale Ale. Despite their extremely wide distribution, they produce sustainable, bottle-conditioned ales that tend to have balanced, clean flavors. Dogfish Head, on the other hand, tends to be wilder in their creations, brewing with fruit, spices, unique woods, wine grapes-- in short, pretty much anything they think might taste good. They're probably the biggest up-and-comer in craft beer, dedicated to brewing "event beers" that people want to talk about, and Life & Limb is another in their long line of great ideas that live up to the buzz.

Life & Limb is a dark, flavorful beer brewed with maple syrup from Calagione's family's farm in Massachusetts and barley from Sierra Nevada's estate. It's huge and strongly alcoholic (10% ABV), with a sweet maple flavor that would be beautifully tempered with a year or so of aging. The yeast in the beer is a 50-50 mix of Dogfish and Sierra's personal strains; the result truly tastes like a perfect blend of their characteristic flavors, with more sweetness than a standard Sierra and more balance than a typical Dogfish. In the spirit of sustainability, the two breweries also decided to make a "small beer," a low-alcohol offering brewed from a second run of the mash used to make Life & Limb. The resulting beer, Limb & Life, is lighter, with strong overtones of hops. While most small beers clock in at 2 or 3% ABV, Limb & Life is 5%, leading Calagione to dub it "an Imperial small beer."

The Life & Limb release party was held last night at Ana Mandara, the French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant in Ghiradelli Square. It was a different, but tasty choice-- beer dinners often tend to gravitate towards restaurants with rich, heavy food, and a touch of lightness on the plate was a boon, especially with two beers being served at every course. While the food was delicious, however, I wasn't overwhelmed by the pairings. There were a few winning matches, notably a beef-tenderloin stir-fry whose dark soy glaze matched nicely with the deep flavor of Dogfish's Palo Santo Marron, but there were also some blatant misfires, including a chicken dish with peanut sauce that clashed strongly with its pairing, Dogfish's sweet, honey-glazed Midas Touch. Sierra's beers fared better in the pairings, but they tend to be almost pathologically food-friendly as a rule; I was somewhat disappointed that most of their offerings were old standards like the Pale and Celebration Ales, considering that Sierra does make a variety of interesting smaller releases like their wet-hopped Tornado and tasty Belgian Trippel.

What the dinner lacked in pairing quality, however, it more than made up for in bonhomie; the communal spirit seemed to spill over to the enthusiastic guests, and Calagione, Grossman, and their employees were attentive, coming to talk to the tables and answering questions at every course. Our table included brewers, bloggers, and one girlfriend so supportive of her boyfriend's brewing passion that she attended despite a gluten intolerance that made it impossible for her to drink any of the beer.

According to Grossman, 24-ounce bottles of Life & Limb should be on the shelves later this week; if your local independent store doesn't carry it, you might see it at Whole Foods, which I've found to have a notable enthusiasm for Dogfish Head products. I also wouldn't be surprised if a keg or two makes it to the Toronado, whose owner was in attendance last night. The quantity is extremely limited, so if you want to try it, the brewers recommend grabbing a bottle when you see it. If you're a fan of either or both of these breweries, it's a great opportunity to taste a truly delicious distillation of their unique styles, and a strong argument for the power of collaboration.