Saturday, March 7, 2009

Extreme Beers

Brewing lends itself to experimentation in the same way as cooking up a recipe in a kitchen. Ingredients can be used or featured based on their individual strengths and flavors, their seasonal availability or to the taste of the chef. And as always, limits and prescribed recipes exist only to be pushed, challenged and extended.

The American craft brewing scene has an element of rogue extreme beers galloping along its fringes. What is meant by “extreme beers” are certain craft beers that push the limits of style guidelines, palatability or alcoholic strength. These are almost by definition experimental products, some little more than commercial test batches that have been formally released.

The descriptor "extreme” is taken to mean beyond simply the stronger versions of more traditional styles. Strong IPAs and imperial stouts may creep into the 10% ABV range but extreme beers routinely double this. Yet it is not necessarily the gravity that defines an extreme beer but some attribute taken to excess beyond any contemporary product or stylistic guideline.

By their very nature, extreme beers can be expensive and calorie-laden. Anywhere from twice to ten times the ingredients of a normal batch of beer can be used to produce just a single batch of these beers. This makes their prices soar, and small batch runs yield limited availability that is only compounded by rabid fans and consumers.

Because extreme beers are such a financial commitment on the part of the brewer, only a few brewers have the means to even attempt these rarities. Likewise, only a subset of the craft beer consuming market is willing to invest in these beers, yet somehow demand remains very high nationwide. Some present commercial examples include:

Three Floyds Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout. This is a dark imperial stout that pushes the limits of viscosity. At 13% ABV, this stout is as thick as sorghum and has elements of coffees, chocolates and ports. A special day is set aside each April for its annual release that draws pilgrims to the brewery in Indiana from across the United States.

Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. This is another Russian imperial stout that has traded places back and forth with the Utopia in years past for the world record of the highest gravity commercial beer. Generally around 18% ABV, this is another heavy stout with components of roasted coffee, merlot, dark fruits and licorice.

Samuel Adams Triple Bock. Batches of this extreme beer were brewed only in 1994, 1995 and 1997, yet bottles can still be found in retailers around the country. An experimental (and somewhat controversial) extension of the doppelbock style, the Triple Bock reached 17.5% ABV and has been described as everything from a heavily malted ale to an unpalatable blend of soy sauce and wine.

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA. Supposedly a continuation of their sixty- and ninety-minute hopping process from the beers of the same names, this is less a strong IPA and more of a hoppy American barleywine. Recent batches have clocked in at 21% ABV, and this beer is designed to age in the cellar for decades or longer. Trust me when I say this beer greatly improves with even just a little age.

Samuel Adams Utopia. The most extreme of commercial beers, this beer requires several different yeast strains to reach its final gravity of 27% ABV. Sold in a very distinctive gold vessel modeled after a full-sized mash tun, a single bottle can retail for as much as $125. Remarkably, the beer remains smooth and drinkable without becoming whiskey-hot with the highest alcohol level ever recorded for a commercial beer.

No comments: