Highway 61 Black French Saison
I fretted over what style of beer I would brew for Highway 61 Revisited more than any other beer in this series. One of my reasons for that was that I’d argue Highway 61 is Dylan’s most important album. It was released about five months after his landmark Bringing It All Back Home album, in which he had “gone electric” for the first time on the first side of the album. This move alienated and infuriated members of the folk rock music scene who saw him a traitor and defector to the pop world. One of my favorite parts of Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home is when Dylan turns to his band after being called “Judas” from the crowd and instructs them “Play it F**king loud!” Dylan knew that Highway 61 was going to erase all doubt he had indeed “gone electric” and he wasn’t ashamed of it. This was his natural progression as a musician and songwriter and felt he didn’t have to conform to what everyone was expecting of him. I believe there’s something extremely admirable about that.
Another reason for my trepidation about this beer is that this album is consistently rated as one of, if not the very best album that Dylan ever produced. Rolling Stone magazine has rated it as the #4 album of all time (Blonde on Blonde is #9, Blood on the Tracks is #16, Bringing It All Back Home is #31, Freewheelin’ is #97, FYI). To try to compete with mastery like that should involve a little more critical thinking.
From the start, Dylan unleashes the fury. To quote Bruce Springsteen at Dylan’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, “Like a Rolling Stone” opened with “that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” And so began what Rolling Stone magazine has ranked as the greatest song of all time.
I sometimes find it funny how many people regard “Like a Rolling Stone.” I often times compare it to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” in that it has become somewhat of a singalong song despite that fact that the song isn’t as joyful as the backing music would suggest. If Bringing It All Back Home was showing Dylan’s independent side, Highway 61 Revisited at times highlights his cynical side. The sharpness of the voice, the direct questioning of “How does it feel?” not once, but twice, drives home the point. The overall theme is about “Miss Lonely” who has been in upper to upper-middle class and had gotten comfortable in that situation, if not a little complacent, and is now struggling. One of the most interesting themes is that in certain points of the song, it seems that Dylan shifts from wanting to needle this character and instead offers compassion. Instead of asking her “How does it feel?” in a belittling way, it almost becomes “doesn’t it feel wonderful that you can do anything because you’ve lost everything?” This song will be endlessly debated by critics much more qualified, and I’ll leave the rest to them.
The album then jumps into what it truly is, a blues inspired straight rock album with “Tombstone Blues”, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh It Takes a Train To Cry” and “From a Buick 6.” The last song on the first side, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, is where I drew a lot of my inspiration for this beer.
The lyrics on “Ballad of a Thin Man” are so wonderfully devilish, cynical, direct and insulting, it makes me wish I was around when this record starting spinning everywhere in 1965. The final line of each stanza, “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?” is a great biting commentary of his contemporary elitists who didn’t understand 60’s counterculture. This instantly made me think of the infamous “Brewed the Hard Way” commercial from Budweiser that put down so many craft brewers and drinkers as handle bar mustache wearing hipsters who only sniffed and dissected their beers rather than enjoy them. I felt this type of attitude would be very similar to what Dylan was talking about. Imagine a macro drinker who is unwilling to try anything else other than their old standby walking into a brewery full of people with snifter glasses having the time of their lives? Mr. Jones certainly would see something happening and wouldn’t know what it was. To compliment the snifter glass, I chose a Black French Saison, because what better to exemplify modern day beer counterculture than a beer that is the polar opposite of marco brew?
The second side continues with more of Dylan’s commentary on cultural and political themes, culminating with “Desolation Row.” In this song, Dylan goes acoustic, the only song on the album, and is reminiscent of his acoustic second side on Bringing It All Back Home. But while the second side of that album seemed like an invitation to join him on where he was going, “Desolation Row” is a collection of characters, which could be interpreted in a variety of different ways. The most poignant moment of the song is perhaps when people are shouting at passengers on the Titanic, “Which side are you on?”, with the point being, what little difference does it make which side you are on when you’re all on the Titanic and you’re all going down? This could certainly be interpreted as Dylan’s take on contemporary America and where the country was heading. I also love the contrasts of these characters with this southwestern, almost Italian-like acoustic guitar accompaniment.
Moving away from the actual music, the actual US Highway 61 starts near where Dylan was born in northern Minnesota and travels south through some of the more famous southern blues cities like St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. To call the album “Highway 61 Revisited” makes a deliberate reference to Dylan’s intentions, a blues based rock album, of which he definitely accomplished. Highway 61 is Dylan’s most blues influenced album of the 60’s, and arguably of his career. There are no sweet ballads or break up songs. When viewed as a whole, it is Dylan’s take on southern blues, rich with his own style of poetic beauty layered over on top. There’s a lot going on in the album, with deep complexities and contrasts.
I mentioned before that a Black French Saison could be the ultimate example of modern day counterculture, but that’s not the only reason I chose this style to represent the album. Just as Dylan drew from his own life in choosing a highway that started near his hometown, I chose a “style” of beer that heavily influenced me getting big into craft beer several years ago. I remember drinking a lot of Amber Ales, Pale Ales, Porters and IPAs and really enjoying them, but it wasn’t until I really got into Belgian styles that I went from craft beer fan to craft beer fanatic. And just as Dylan put his own fingerprint on a style of music he was obviously a fan of, I changed the yeast and hops from Belgian to those of French origins.
I also wanted to highlight the contrasts on this album by making it black without it tasting overly roasty and chocolaty. In fact, I wanted to create an experience where if you drank this beer with your eyes closed, you probably couldn’t tell it was black. I likened this contrast to the difference in tones between the lyrics and music in “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Desolation Row” and the album’s title track, “Highway 61 Revisited.”
To create the color without introducing the darker flavors, we used a percentage of Carafa Special III, which is able to accomplish this by being de-husked, which is where more of the acrid, acidic and roasty are found. We also used Belgian Pilsner, German Vienna and American White Wheat. I wanted to use malts from several different countries to highlight the variety of influences Dylan references in his music and songwriting. For hops, we used a newer German variety called Herkules for bittering and French Strisselspalt for flavoring and aroma. We fermented it with a French Saison strain that we allowed to run free without temperature control after the first 24 hours to let it express itself. And just as we added pineapple juice to violate the Reinheitsgebot in our “Bringing It All Back Home Sour IPA”, we added seeds of paradise at the end of the boil for this beer. The combination of the hops, yeast and spice add a pleasant peppery and spicy component that outshines the miniscule roastiness that pops up on the very back end. Just like the album, there’s a lot going on in this beer, and I’m hoping I was able to showcase the complexities and contrasts of Highway 61 that I just wrote about.
So how does it feel? Maybe Dylan was on to something, that having it all and losing it isn’t about defeatism, but maybe the truth about what he was trying to say is found more in the last lines of the final verse of “Like a Rolling Stone” along with the chorus: “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose/You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal/How does it feel/How does it feel/To be on your own/With no direction home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone?” Maybe it’s just me, but I sense a small correlation to when he sang “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” in “Mr Tambourine Man.” Perhaps Dylan was talking about himself, and how he was the one free to do anything, free from the chains of expectations in the folk scene and free to roll wherever he’d like. Maybe we don’t always need to be pointed in the direction of home.
We could debate Dylan’s intentions until the end of time, but that’s not my place or goal. My true goal is that you’ll come in to try this beer, as I think it’s really good. And that you’ll listen to the album and maybe hear something you never heard before. Maybe at the same time. I know that when I sit down with a friend at the end of a long day with a beer, there is a sense of freedom that exists, that for a moment time can stand still and you can, for a short time, feel free, much like the famous Rolling Stone. How does it feel? When I’m drinking this beer, it feels fantastic.