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.