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Dan the Automator, Dogfish concoct a beer/music mash-up

June 22, 2012 |  4:52 pm

Dan the Automator
An electronic whiz who is comfortable incorporating jazz, funk, pop and soul into complex hip-hop textures, Dan "The Automator" Nakamura's latest project uses more old-world ingredients. Apples, for instance. And cilantro. 

Like lots of Nakamura's other concoctions, "Positive Contact" is a mix-and-mash of seemingly random components. Unlike any of them, however, it is a beer.

This week, Delaware's adventurous Dogfish Head Brewery began shipping a beer-and-vinyl box set dubbed "Positive Contact," a limited-run collaboration that pairs a 10-inch white vinyl of Nakamura's Deltron 3030 music project with six 750-ml bottles of an ale brewed with Fuji apples, cayenne peppers and cilantro. It should be hitting California retailers in the coming days, if it isn't on shelves already.

Embarking on the project, Dogfish founder Sam Calagione assigned Nakamura perhaps the dream homework assignment of beer nerds everywhere: "I sent Dan every single beer that we make in bottles," Calagione says. "Every day or two for a month-and-a-half he would send me elaborate tasting notes on each beer. The goal was for me to figure out his palate."

Dogfish has a reputation as one of the more experimental -- or simply weird -- craft breweries. The beer designer was the focus of a Discovery Channel series "Brew Masters," which tracked Calagione's quests around the world for ancient, unexpected ingredients. Among its 34 beers are ales concocted with pinot noir juice and the "chemical analysis of 3,000-year-old pottery fragments found in Honduras." The company's former assistant brewmaster, Jon Carpenter, is the lead brewer at L.A.'s burgeoning Golden Road Brewing.

Dogfish's music connections run deep. Chicago resident Jon Langford, leader of long-running punk outfit the Mekons, has designed artwork for the brewery (Langford also paints, and Calagione owns one of his portraits of Johnny Cash). Dogfish has also released a Miles Davis-inspired beer (Bitches Brew) as well as one named after Robert Johnson (Hellhound on My Ale). Last year, Dogfish unleashed Faithfull Ale, a beer that celebrated the 20th anniversary of Pearl Jam's "Ten."

The Pearl Jam ale has been retired, and Calagione doesn't expect to ever bottle it again. It is, as Calagione says, "a collector's item," and bids for bottles on eBay start at about $40. "Positive Contact" sets will be limited to a run of 8,000, and Dogfish is suggesting retailers sell the box set for between $60 and $70. 

Nakamura says expanding into beer is a natural evolution. "It’s all sensual," Nakamura says. "Music is sensual. Food is sensual. Beer, wine and alcohol are sensual. So this all makes sense. Whether you make food, wine, music or beer, you’re dealing with emotions. That’s why there’s a certain kind of camaraderie among the elements."

Nakamura's Deltron 3030 is his collaboration with rapper Del tha Funky Homosapien; both are veterans of Damon Albarn's Gorillaz project. The four tracks included on the "Positive Contact" vinyl are dub remixes of tracks recorded for the act's new album, due this fall. The upcoming album features guest vocals from "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World" star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as well as a full orchestra and choir. 

Calagione and Nakamura were connected via mutual friends when the brewer expressed that he was a fan. After Nakamura sent Calagione his beer notes, the two met for drinks and food at Eataly's rooftop New York beer garden Birreria, a collaboration between Dogfish and Italian brewers Baladin and Del Borgo (Calagione confirms that a L.A. Eataly is likely). Based on ingredients Nakamura said he enjoyed, Calagione began shaving apples and spices into various ales to see what might work as a potential recipe.

"Deltron stands out so much in the world of hip-hop," Calagione  says. "It’s cinematic and the rhymes are all over the place, so this is one of the first cider-beer hybrids. A double-digit percentage of the fermentable sugars in this beer come from organic Fuji apples. It has a complex, herbaceous nose, with the cilantro playing a big part in the aroma. Then it finishes crisp and dry like a French cider."

Nakamura says his tastes lean to lighter wheat and fruit ales. He cites Japan's Hitachino Nest White Ale as one of his all-time favorites. "This is a nod to fresh, California ingredients," Nakamura says. "The cilantro hits you, and then the apple comes in."

The ale has a hearty alcohol content at 9%, and shares the texture of a Belgium wheat. There's definitely a spice kick to the beer's finish, as it goes down tart and dry. The apple flavoring in the dark orange beer becomes more prominent as it warms, and the pepper comes through greater than the cilantro.

Considering that craft brewers have an avid following -- witness the lines down the block to sample rarities such as Russian River's Pliny the Younger, or the standing-room-only tap room at L.A.'s Eagle Rock Brewery every weekend -- Nakamura knows the box set will likely attract more beer aficionados than music fans. There are no plans to release the dub remixes online, so this music is strictly available to those 21 and older.

"You realize," says Nakamura, "that this is going to be the No. 1 selling vinyl record in America the day the beer comes out." 

The vinyl sleeve is laced with recipes, as Calagione's ultimate vision is that "Positive Contact" will unite music fans, foodies and beer nerds alike. Chefs David Chang, Mario Batalio, James Syhabout, Sean Paxton and Joe Beef contributed recipes for items such as a barley-and-honey brownie and fried chicken. Nakamura cites Syhabout's Oakland restaurant Commis as having one of his favorite house beers, a rice ale made by Linden Street Brewery.

Though Calagione doesn't expect Dogfish to be in the vinyl business long, he notes that the brewery has learned more from musicians than other breweries, at least when it comes to running a business. He says the company's rallying cry is "analog beers for the digital age."

"I learned more about growing Dogfish by studying the music industry," Calagione says. "There’s so many parallels between music and beer. For example, Top-40 music is the equivalent of light lager beer. It dominates commercially, it’s accessible and it’s not distinct -- it’s intentionally not distinct."

He continues, "We’re a punk rock band. We’re a hip-hop act. We’re like when Afrika Bambaataa plugged into a street light for an outdoor party. We’re like the Minutemen getting into a van and designing their own merch and figuring out a distribution network by calling friends." 

And Dogfish's rock 'n' roll dreams aren't finished. After the interview, Calagione sent an email that read, "I blasted Japandroids on the way in to work today while day dreaming about a beer made with tree resin and pomegranates."


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 Image: Dan the Automator / Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times