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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More BrewDog Ridiculousness…

This Thanksgiving morning here in the United States brings news of more extreme beer ridiculousness from across the Atlantic. Usually a level-headed place that only gets its knickers in a bunch when discussing gravity taps, cask breathers, and other real ale intricacies, the British beer scene is dealing with news that the BrewDog Brewery of Scotland has brewed what it claims to be the world’s strongest beer. I caught the story from beer writer Pete Brown’s website, and while I agree with the first line, I can’t say as much about the second.

Slag ’em or praise ’em, you just can’t stop talking about ’em.

But it’s nice to be able to talk about Brew Dog for the right reasons again. Today, the brewery announces the launch of Tactical Nuclear Penguin – at 32%, the strongest beer on the planet, beating previous record holder Sam Adams Utopias by 7%.

BrewDog certainly has a knack for public relations and marketing, born in large part out of its close following of the Stone Brewing Company’s playbook. Of the brewery’s beers I have previously written:

The irony here is, for all of the bravado and boastfulness, BrewDog actually makes very simple, approachable and traditional beers that do not push the envelope of taste or flavor.

So with news of a 32-percent alcohol beer, piggybacking upon the controversy caused by its Tokyo, a 12-percent imperial stout, and its low-alcohol Nanny State, co-founder and lead spinmeister James Watt is beginning to sound a little like the comedian Lenny Bruce, who late in his career spent all of his time on stage railing against censorship instead of telling jokes. Watt himself has invited much of the controversy, including the inexplicable filing of a complaint against its own beer (the aforementioned Tokyo) with the Portman Group, a trade organization representing beverage alcohol producers and brewers in Britain. This act of self-immolation led to the banning of the product from public sale.

While these efforts inevitably raise the brewery’s profile and public awareness of the brand, and perhaps it is even what is required to awaken a staid and conservative British marketplace, it certainly detracts from the brewery’s products and comes across as a manufactured marketing ploy.

So with this mini-jeremiad aside, I imagine the folks at the Boston Beer Company, maker of Utopias, the reigning holder of the world’s strongest beer crown, may have something to say about BrewDog’s claims to that title. Lab analysis and reports will follow and I imagine that the claimed 32-percent ABV TNP will reveal itself to be either a lesser fraction of that amount or mainly comprised of alcohol gained from whisky cask aging, on top of the freeze and water removal process .

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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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RateBeer Hates On Lagers…

So in writing the book, I’ve used the major beer websites for cross-referencing information and other research purposes. So tonight in looking at RateBeer.com, a site I don’t often find myself on, I was perusing its Top Beers of 2009 and Best American Beers lists. I was struck not so much by the alcohol bombs that dominate their ranks, a topic I address in my next BeerAdvocate column, but by what is absent: lager beers. As in none. And no, I’m not counting the Livery’s Bourbon Cask Aged Wheat Trippelbock weighing in at 11-14% abv. And to be fair, the BeerAdvocate top beer list isn’t much better on this point but it does offer a half-dozen or so lagers and isn’t quite as booze/hop/barrel heavy. I know that by now I shouldn’t be surprised or bothered by these lists, but I have to say the beer geek addiction to alcohol, hop, and barrel bombs is not only disturbing but I just can’t bring myself to even feign interest in them at this point. So in an upcoming BA column I discuss why we should shy away from these mind-numbingly boring beers and seek out a new definition of extreme beer.

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Harpoon To Release New ‘Big Beer’ Series…

I have been a little lax on the New England news reporting lately despite having a half-dozen interesting topics lying around. Here is a quick attempt to get one into the beer geek rumor mill.

The Harpoon Brewery of Boston is preparing for the release of a new line of ‘big beers’ to accompany its existing line of mainstream ales. The new series, named ‘Leviathan,’ will start out with draft only offerings and eventually transition into 4-packs and limited availability on draft. The line is designed to appeal to the niche of beer geeks who felt that the brewery’s ‘100 Barrel Series’ lacked sufficient punch as a specialty release. The 100 Barrel Series was initially designed to help Harpoon push beyond its stock lineup of traditional, mild flavored beers. While it offered several ‘extreme’ or higher gravity offerings, the 100 Barrel Series eventually focused on more traditional styles, such as oatmeal stout and wit, that were not designed to push the brewing envelope, the Leviathan series is expected to forage into new brewing areas for Harpoon.

Ironically, Harpoon’s first release in the Leviathan series is a throwback to the tenth beer the brewery produced as part of its 100 Barrel Series. The Leviathan Triticus, a beer originally brewed with help by Jason and Todd Alstrom of BeerAdvocate.com, will debut at the American Craft Beer Fest in June (Harpoon and BeerAdvocate are partners in the ACBF venture). The Triticus is a wheat wine of 14-percent alcohol.

This isn’t the first time the Leviathan name has been used by an American craft brewery in connection with a series of stronger beers. The Sleeping Lady Brewing Company of Anchorage, Alaska, produces the Leviathan Double I.P.A., the Pacific Coast Brewing Company of Oakland, California, brews the Leviathan Imperial Stout, and the Fish Brewing Company of Olympia, Washington, brews the Fish Tale Leviathan Barleywine.

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