You Know What Would Make For An Interesting Beer Festival…

…one dedicated entirely to small beers. By that, I don’t necessarily mean low alcohol beers but those made with the second runnings of a larger brew, such as a barleywine, imperial stout, or quad. The Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco has long produced such a beer, called Small Beer, from the second runnings of its popular Old Foghorn Barleywine. From its website, Anchor gives the reasons for producing such an unusual beer:

The tradition of brewing two distinct beers from one mash has existed for thousands of years, and for centuries the term “small beer” was used in English to describe the lighter and weaker second beer. By association, the term came to mean something of little importance.

Let’s get small We make our Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale from the rich first runnings of an all-malt mash, and Anchor Small Beer is our attempt to duplicate the “small beers” of old by sparging that same mash: sprinkling warm water over the Old Foghorn mash after the first wort has run off, thereby creating a second, lighter brew from the resulting thinner wort. Technically, both beers are “ales” because they are made with top-fermenting yeast.

We believe you will find Anchor Small Beer delicious—similar to what modern brewers call a “bitter”—and we hope you will also enjoy the idea of reviving an ancient brewing tradition, which is something of great importance.

I’ll add another. In an age of economy–by which I mean conservation of resources and funds–it hardly makes sense in many cases to simply discard grain that still has enough combined sugars to produce a second beer. And in this age of inventive brewing, brewing small beers doesn’t mean every resulting offering has to taste like Anchor’s Small Beer.

Such an event, filled with small beers of all flavors and varieties, is an example of what I have been talking about with the need to redefine “extreme beer.”

Maybe we’ll see some at this year’s Extreme Beer Festival. Somehow I doubt it…

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The Time Has Come To Redefine Extreme Beer…

The time has come for brewers and consumer beer advocates alike to redefine extreme. After spending years pushing the envelope of what constitutes beer, the movements of brewers have largely been directed down paths towards higher alcohol levels, increased hop ratios, and bourbon barrel aging, sometimes all at once. While hardcore beer geeks continue to salivate over each new such release, when tested blind, it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish between these one-note wonders. Take for the extreme beer movement’s ringleader, the Double IPA. The alcohol levels on most DIPA’s have run so high as to render them nearly indistinguishable from American barleywines and it is the rare that one actually tastes expressively of hops instead of booze.

It is time for this singularity of vision to give way and for a new era of extreme to dawn. Now this is not the biweekly call to abandon extreme beer for a return to traditional beer styles, although brewing a clean helles or crisp German pilsener is about the most radical act an American craft brewer could undertake these days. Instead, it is time to push past alcohol, hops, and boozy barrels as the only gauges of extreme. If extreme means to exceed the ordinary, usual, or expected, then sticking your latest booze bomb in a bourbon barrel, the training wheels of extreme beer, can no longer quality.

At the Extreme Beer Festival a few years back, surrounded by dozens of these usual alcohol, hop, and barrel suspects, I overheard a few folks talking about one beer that had gone too far. After ambling over to the mentioned table, for a local farm brewery, the brewer told me of his plan to turn extreme on its head. Rather than simply producing yet another barrel or booze beer, he decided to brew a Medieval ale. Starting four days before the festival, the brewer produced a 100-percent barley beer, with no hop or spice additions, and served it, as would have been done several hundred years earlier, within a few days. By his own admission, the beer, with no preservatives and a low alcohol level, had already started to turn, as beer quickly did in the early days of brewing. Now I’m not saying that we should return to pre-Industrial Age brewing conditions but it was a memorable beer moment, a rare opportunity to glimpse brewing history, and it was qualified as extreme.

In a time where brewers brag about using fifteen different hop and malt types in their beers, I am drawn away to thoughts of the beauty and simplicity inherent in many single malt and hop offerings. Muddlehop messes are full of sound and fury; signifying nothing, like a discordant cacophony of misaligned and malcontented flavors. It is more the noise of traffic than the mastered hand of Ornette Coleman in its self-promoted dissonance. Today, it is a far more radical thing to rely on a single hop variety to create crisp, clean, and iconic pilsners, as Victory Brewing has done with its Braumeister Pils series, or to create singularly expressive India pale ales.

The same can be said for brewers and their use of multiple yeast strains. Perhaps the least understood element of brewing, the complexities of yeast continue to confound American brewers to the extent that many prefer to work with the same, safe California or English ale yeast strains than truly plumb the depths of this mysterious ingredient. There remains so much unexplored ground in the classic four ingredients of beer that expanding into new areas, for its own sake and to the detriment of drinkability, is growing tired and extreme it can no longer be considered.

In changing the way we view extreme, or at least what we are willing to give that label, we can open our minds to new experiences and allow American beer, which has grown complacent with its reliance on the unholy trinity of alcohol, hops, and barrels, to start the next chapter in the story of extreme beer.

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Goodbye Extreme Beer Festival, Hello Denmark…

So another Extreme Beer Festival is now behind this. This event has grown in many ways and yesterday’s sessions were an impressive onslaught of unusual flavors and approaches to the ever expanding definition of beer. The panel discussion was filled with interesting ideas that I look forward to reviewing when it’s posted online, including a distinction between extreme beer and imperialization of styles. It was also good to see a lot of friendly faces from around the country.

It’s hard to think that I now have to pack for Denmark as I leave for Copenhagen this evening. It should be a fun trip, even in February, with a few beer-related stops thrown in for good measure. Things will probably be quiet here for a little while but perhaps I’ll even employ Twitter to offer some thoughts while in Denmark, we shall see…

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