Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

October 24, 2007

Beer Diary:

Extreme Misnomer

Today’s new big, exotic beers are really just a return to brewing’s roots.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
A little while ago, Nigel penned a review of Lakefront Brewing’s IPA in which he lamented the fact of said brewery’s dearth of “extreme” beers (quotes are mine, not Nigel’s). I say “penned” because he mails these 4,000-word monstrosities to me written in fountain pen ink, and I’ve gotta type the damn things in. And imagine, I give him beer.

Anway, after Nigel’s review appeared on our web site, he received an e-mail from a spokesperson at Lakefront thanking him for the review, and also kindly pointing out that Lakefront does indeed brew more than a few beers that some folks might consider “extreme”—quotes both mine and Lakefront’s—such as their Bourbon Barrel Cherry Lager, Beerline Organic Barley Wine, and New Grist.

This whole series of events got me to thinking about how I really don’t see the point of the term “extreme” when it comes to beers. I’m not saying I don’t like these beers; in fact, I love giant-ass “hop bombs” and I totally dig trying out brews made with funky ingredients, from cracked pepper to peanut butter. What I’m saying is that categorizing such beers as “extreme”—or categorizing them at all—is … well, the word “stupid” is too strong. I guess what I’m looking for is a word that means “naive arrogance.”

This trend to label beers that are high alcohol, highly hopped, or composed of non-traditional ingredients as “extreme” was coined, as far as I can tell, by the Alström brothers, the two guys who founded the best beer site on the internet, Since 2004 they’ve hosted a fest in Boston dedicated to such beers, and their championing of this brewing movement has led to the creation of some of the best and most creative beers in the world.

My first beef with the term is that it’s both totally relative and subjective. One person’s “extreme” beer is another’s session brew. Or, yesterday’s “extreme” beer is today’s yawn-inducing, “so what?” Even Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione says his “Raison d’Etre was an extreme beer five years ago. It doesn’t seem so extreme anymore, does it?” And what exactly constitutes an “extreme” beer, today or at any other time? The Alström brothers themselves don’t have a hard and fast definition, saying only it pushes the envelope of what beer is. So, if I were to, say, take some high fructose corn syrup, dump in some water, enzymes, and yeast, I’d have some “extreme” beer, right? The marketing wizards at Anheuser-Busch ended up calling it Bud Dry.

My other, bigger problem with calling these beers “extreme” or even “new” is really just ignoring all sense of history. I guess it must be natural for people to assume their time in this world was the greatest era to have yet to occurred. Our technological marvels are more marvelous, our sports stars are the best to have ever played, and our beers are bigger and badder ass than any that ever existed.

But history, as usual, says otherwise. High ABV beers are nothing new. Contrary to what our teachers, preachers, and parents have told us, our ancestors had a great love for getting schnockered, so much so that I truly believe we as humans are hard wired for it.

One of the first alcoholic beverages known to man is the braggot, and anyone who has brewed mead before will tell you that you can easily acheive an ABV in the double digits if you just add enough honey to the concoction.

The English came up with the “doble doble,” a rather blunt—and expensive—mashing technique to easily generate a wort with a gravity of over 1.10. In layman’s terms, that is one big-ass beer.

And even though our ancestors didn’t have the electron microscopes needed to develop the “ninja yeast” strains that Sam Adams and Dogfish Head use to make their 20 percent-plus brews, they were more than clever enough to get around such constraints. For instance, in colonial America, a popular drink called “hum” or “flip” consisted of ale heated over a fire and mixed with spirits such as rum or whiskey. The Germans stumbled across the eisbock when some of their beers partially froze in the winter. The alcohol in the beer, with its much lower freezing point, was scraped off, yielding a highly potent brew. This distillation method wasn’t quite as efficient as using heat to evaporate the alcohol out of beer and then capture it after it condensed, which is exactly what some crazy Scots (or Irish, depending on who you believe) did around the 5th century A.D. when they invented whiskey. Is 40 percent ABV “extreme” enough for you?

There’s nothing quite like a Devil Dancer or Furious for tongue-wrenching IBUs, right? Child’s play to our ancestors. By most historical accounts, the original India pale ales were hopped at a frightening rate, even to an avowed hophead: five pounds per barrel, which is about five times the hopping rate of an extremely hoppy modern IPA. Couple that with the fact that these brews were barrel-aged on the high seas (anyone who’s had a single malt speyside Scotch will tell you that you can taste the salty air in the final product) and you have a beer that will make today’s creations seem like candy-ass tea in comparison.

And exotic ingredients are old hat as far as brewing history is concerned. No matter the time or the place, brewers used pretty much whatever was on hand and was fermentable in their beers. Rye, oats, spelt, millet, and sorghum—just to mention a few fermentable grains—have been in use for centuries. In some cases, millennia. The Belgians have been using candi sugar to lighten—and pump up the ABV—of their awesome brews for decades. And then you have the lambics, which use wild yeast that drift in through the open brewery windows from the cherry orchards, and have been doing so for centuries. With barley and hop fields not commonplace yet in the American colonies, folks were forced to use molasses in lieu of malt, and spruce tips instead of hops, especially after the crown cut them off. No wonder they revolted.

The Incas had only maize to make their beers with, and if you understand the brewing process then you know that corn has no diastatic enzymes to break the sugars down for the yeast. What’d they use, then? Saliva. Brewers chewed up the corn and spit it into the mash. Consider the envelope officially pushed.

In fact, the only time brewers reined themselves in and brewed using only malt and hops, it was because the law forced them to. The famous (and way over-esteemed) Reinheitsgebot, or German purity law, said brewers could only use barley, water, and hops (yeast were unknown at the time of the law’s passage), and until the English Hop Law went into effect, commercial brewers were using creepy-sounding ingredients like bog myrtle and mugwort in place of the very expensive hops. Even after such laws were enacted, home brewers—which every household was, back then—still used whatever was both effective and on hand to spice, preserve, and stabilize their beers. Heather and juniper beers still exist to this day in Scotland and parts of Scandinavia, respectively.

So I propose we declare a moratorium on the word “extreme” when it comes to beers. You can call them “big” if they’re relatively high in alcohol (or “ballsy” if you want to get all phallocentric) or maybe even “monstrous.” Or how about just “beer”?

Just don’t assume that all the great beers craft brewers are creating across the country are something new (OK, the pizza beer …that’s probably new). What’s happening as the industry matures is that we’re just rediscovering our brewing heritage and history. So enjoy it, revel in it, celebrate this great brewing culture that is slowly returning to us. But at the same time, understand that it’s probably all been done before.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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