Before there was a brewery in almost every small town, craft beer producers were few and far between – until a 1990s boom the likes of which the industry had never seen. Armed with fresh ideas and an underground cult-like following, these new independent craft breweries altered the beer landscape with unique recipes, a trendsetter-like attitude and the desire to experiment using new ingredients.
At the forefront of that boom was Flying Dog Brewery, a Colorado-based brand that quickly began making a name for itself, with some help from one of the 20th Century’s most eccentric writers. Founded in 1990 by George Stranahan and Richard McIntyre, Flying Dog’s disobedient style of beer was a favorite of both Hunter S. Thompson and the ever-growing craft beer community, so when it came time to celebrate two decades of brewing, the company wanted to unleash a beer that was untamed, that was just as recognizable on the outside as it was on the inside. It was then, in the waning months of 2009, that Raging Bitch Belgian IPA was first released and what followed became a year-round effort that’s become almost as distinguished as the brewery itself.
Raging Bitch encapsulates everything that is Flying Dog, from an unconventional look to an unconventional name to an unconventional beer. It embodies what continues to make the brewery, now based in Maryland, different from its contemporaries. It’s an 8.3% Belgian-style IPA brewed with Caramel malts, Warrior, Columbus and Amarillo hops and a Belgian yeast strain that’s appropriately named El Diablo – but what is it exactly that classifies Raging Bitch as part of this often overlooked style?
“Yeast management, as well as controlling fermentation and the rate of attenuation, is critical to the production of the yeast-derived flavor and aromas in Raging Bitch,” says Matt Brophy, Flying Dog’s Chief Operating Officer, when explaining what makes it a Belgian IPA. “The primary variables we look at to achieve a consistent profile for the beer are pitching rate, wort oxygen levels and fermentation temperature.”
Brophy knows just about everything there is to know about Raging Bitch, having been with the brewery since 2003, almost a half a dozen years before the beer’s inception. What first started with a so-so batch of homebrew years before eventually sparked a desire to work in the beer industry for Brophy and now he oversees the day-to-day functions of the country’s 35th largest brewery, based on sales volume. He admits brewing is the perfect mix of science, agriculture, and artistic expression, with endless possibilities when combining those elements. And although Raging Bitch might be a year-round effort, and brewed in 50-barrel batches, it still gets plenty of attention, starting with the hops.
“Each year, a group of brewers from Flying Dog head out to Yakima, Washington to select our hops,” Brophy admits. “We hand select all of our hops every year at harvest.”
The hops are added at two different steps of the brewing process, once during the boil and again during the fermentation. But while these hops help give Raging Bitch its robust flavor, it’s the yeast that plays the most important role in creating that distinct aroma and flavor profile. El Diablo is what Brophy refers to as a “wild and aggressively active” yeast. On its own, El Diablo can create a potent taste but when added in with the hop bill, it adds a much-desired complexity.
“[El Diablo] contributes to the spicy phenolics that add a layer of complexity to this brew. When combined with Amarillo hops, the yeast gives Raging Bitch its fruit and spicy flavor profile.”
After fermentation is complete, Raging Bitch is filtered and ready to be packaged in either bottles, cans or kegs. The entire process of creating a batch of the IPA takes three weeks and then it’s ready for distribution in 24 states and throughout much of the world.
It’s become Flying Dog’s most recognized beer, part of which is thanks to backlash over the name and the label art created by Ralph Steadman, a longtime friend of Thompson whose unique gonzo look was used for the cover of Thompson’s 1971 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, among other things. It ultimately led to a lawsuit, which Flying Dog won, thanks to a Federal Court ruling in Michigan.
But politics aside, Brophy and the crew at Flying Dog continue to pump out massive amounts of the one-time limited release beer, while still concocting new and innovative brews – they make a seasonal Old Bay-infused gose called Dead Rise for pete’s sake – that fit into the off-beat brand’s style. When asked what might be next for Flying Dog, Brophy played it close to his chest, focusing on the present, which includes a new Apple Pie Blonde Ale and the Snowplowed Hibernation Pack that features S’mores Porter, Winter IPA, Chocolate Fever and Raspberry Milk Stout.
“We’ve got an exciting lineup planned for 2021, including returning favorites as well as new and interesting styles.”