Ari Friedman grins down at the cherries behind the bar at Dead Reckoning Tavern in Arcata. It's a wide smile, stretching the corners of his dark mustache and crinkling his eyes. Pluck, twist, plop. Mangled, meaty cherries, freed of stems and pits, fill a wooden bowl as Theo Brown tinkers with the contraption beside them. He runs water through the transparent plastic cylinders and solid white pipes, a final cleaning.
On stage at the bar this June Tuesday is Randall the Enamel Animal, an infusion device created by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware. Restaurants and brew pubs use it to give a final flavor twist to beer before serving, adding fresh hops to an IPA, coffee beans to a porter, or, today, fresh Chelan cherries into Mikkeller's Wheat is the New Hops. As Brown packs cherries into the infusing chamber, Friedman beams through his beard.
Brown, who owns Dead Reckoning, thinks his tavern might have the only Randall in Humboldt County. He's planning a weekly infusion night, probably on Tuesdays, although that could expand to more evenings. He doesn't want to give away upcoming flavor combinations. He's a brewer, with a brewer's palate, and after I tasted his cherried wheat beer, I'd give whatever else he concocts a try. That's saying a lot, because I am not — with gritted teeth, not — a cherry person. Cherry pie, jam, ice cream — all I taste is cough syrup. When I heard Brown was going to infuse the beer with cherries instead of extra hops, I cringed a little.
I was so wrong. The unaltered wheat beer was unusual itself — robust and hoppy. The cherry-infused version didn't taste sweet, fruity or even much of cherries. Instead, the fruit added lightness and crispness. It canceled out the lingering bitter aftertaste. I'd drink more of these than the original, and the original is very, very good.
If you hang out for an hour or so, while more beer moves through the Randall, the color and taste keep changing. First pinker and crisper. Later more golden and a bit heavier. And later still, the hops aftertaste begins creeping back, slightly blunted by the remaining fruit. The Randall is a new toy for Brown, and he'll be experimenting as he goes, deciding how often to freshen up ingredients in the infusion chamber. He has already tinkered with the design, adding an extra cooling chamber: a little red cooler where ice is packed around coiled metal tubing. It all looks gloriously hodgepodge, the perfect thing to sit under Dead Reckoning's beer-keg lamps and slowly turning ceiling fan as a small crowd grows. One guy comes in talking about his runaway pig. A motorcyclist from Orick moves her helmet to make room on the next barstool. On a turntable, "Bottleneck Guitar Trendsetters of the 1930s" plucks away, adding a hint of speakeasy. A beer distributor and I talk about whether some craft brewers might get upset with the Randall, which lets anyone alter the beer they've worked so hard to perfect. He says, Hey, once a keg is sold, it's sold. We both agree that if you can't have fun with beer, you might be missing the point.
The Randall was named in much the same spirit. It was created to deliver an extra zing of hops, and as Dogfish Head tells it, the beer that resulted was so resiny it felt like it could strip the enamel off your teeth. Start rhyming around that idea, and out pops Randall the Enamel Animal. It's a slant rhyme, but hey, everything tilts after a few beers. At first, Dogfish Head helped people build their own Randalls. Then it tweaked the design to reduce foaming, and began selling ready-made Randalls in 2013. So far, it has supplied more than 1,100 of them, enabling a world of inspired — and peculiar — infusions in the United States, Japan, Sweden, Brazil, Mexico and beyond. The brewery doesn't keep a database it can easily check to see whether Dead Reckoning has the only Randall in Humboldt. But Dogfish PR coordinator Janelle Miley shared some ingredients Dogfish and others have tried: Peppers, mango, vanilla beans, coconut, apples and oranges have all been through Randalls. So have Sour Patch Kids.
A date with beer:
June 24, 5 p.m. until sold out, Beer & Dinner Summer Series, a two-course meal paired with beers every summer Wednesday at Redwood Curtain Brewing Co., 550 S. G St., Suite 6, Arcata. Redwood Curtain's Amanda Mollberg selects two beers to accompany meals prepared by former Hurricane Kate chef Alex Begovic, now with Uniquely Yours Catering. The $20 price includes food, two 3-ounce pours and one 12-ounce goblet.
June 30, 5 to 8 p.m., Drink and wince sympathetically at the Beer for Balls closeout party to support NorCal Pet Rescue spay and neuter at Six Rivers Brewery, 1300 Central Ave., McKinleyville. Adoptable dogs will be on hand to look at you soulfully, and raffle prizes include a mountain bike. At the party and throughout June, the brewery will donate $1 to spay and neuter for every pint it sells of its Altered Ale (aka cream ale).
July 1, Mad River Brewing Co. releases The River Runs Rye, a new red IPA on draft and in 22-ounce bottles, as part of its 2015 Artisan Series.
July 12, 4 to 8 p.m. At "Mystery Flight Night," win prizes for guessing what's in your mystery flight of six or 12 beers from Humboldt Regeneration Brewery and Farm, 2320 Central Ave., Unit F, McKinleyville.
Carrie Peyton Dahlberg is a
Trinidad-based journalist who writes about science, medicine and beer. Email her with your August and September beer-related events at firstname.lastname@example.org.