While some brewers gain notoriety through their efforts at invention, others achieve acclaim by taking inspiration from the past. In 1992, the nascent craft brewing movement arrived in Tennessee in the form of Boscos Brewing Company, co-owned by Chuck Skypeck.
In this unlikely location, brewers resurrected an ancient, abandoned method of brewing - steinbeer. Where breweries employ modern methods of heating their brew kettles, brewers of steinbeer forge a different path. Before the invention of metal pots, let alone stainless steel kettles, brewers used wooden vessels to hold their brew during the boiling process. As the wooden vessels could not be placed over a fire, the brewers added the heating source directly to the pot in the form of hot rocks. As the heat from the rocks causes the pot to boil, the wort simultaneously adheres to the rocks. The resulting flavors are caramel and toffee, with some slight smoked character.
Brewers do not simply pick up pebbles on their way into work. The selection of proper stones is serious business. "We did a lot of experimentation with the stones," says Skypeck, who took a minor in geology in college. "We use a pink granite, and it works really well for a number of reasons. It is a metamorphic rock, which has been subjected to a lot of heat, so when we heat it and cool it, it tends to hold together pretty well. It doesn't split. It also has a very irregular surface area, which for the size of the stone increases the size of the surface area we can have caramelization on. The most important thing, which may not be very evident, is that it is a chemically inert rock. If we used something softer like a limestone, you can slip a lot of calcium off into your wort and really change things."
The ancient method of brewing steinbeer was almost universally abandoned as new heating methods gained widespread acceptance. "It was really a pre-industrial method of bringing heat to the process, which of course fell out of favor when the Industrial Revolution came along," says Skypeck. "It's what was going on in central Europe three hundred years ago. The last stone brewery closed in Germany in 1918, and it was truly an artifact out of step with what everyone was doing at that time."
In 1982, German brewer Gerd Borges revived the steinbeer method and his family's flagging brewery, the Franz Joseph Sailer Brewery, by producing the benchmark brew - the Rauchenfels Steinbier. "Credit Rauchenfels with reinvigorating the style," praises Skypeck. "One guy revived it."
Skypeck became interested in steinbeer as a curious homebrewer. "When I was homebrewing, a friend of mine showed me some information he had read about steinbeer. Subsequently, we did an experiment with different types of stones. We also tried to solicit some information from Rauchenfels about what they were doing. This homebrew experiment began Skypeck's long, successful partnership with the beer that would become "famous".
After winning a medal at the American Homebrewers Association competition, Skypeck co-authored some articles in Zymurgy magazine on the ancient brewing practice. When he later opened his brewpub, he considered resurrecting his award-winning homebrew recipe, but was unsure how to achieve it. "My friend was visiting me at the bar, and we were having a beer, and one of my partners, whose primary responsibility was the kitchen, walked by with a metal crawfish cooker, essentially a metal basket," recalls Skypeck of the moment where the lightbulb flickered on. "I went over and grabbed it from him and found out that it would fit in the man-way of the kettle. It fit just about perfectly down inside the kettle. So we decided to try it."
Skypeck's initial attempt to recreate his homebrewing experiment on a professional level proved challenging. The brewers heated the stones in the brewpub's wood-fired pizza oven overnight, and estimate their temperature at the unloading point to be 700 to 900 degrees. With hot stones in the crawfish cooker, Skypeck prepared to start the steinbeer brewing process. "The first time we did it, we submerged the stones in the wort, which was actually pretty dumb because it had quite a reaction - with immediate and intense boiling and, of course, a lot of foaming. Subsequently, we set them in the bottom of the kettle while we're lautering, and we slowly covered up the stones. I think we get some more caramelization that way - and a little slower reaction."
While brewer Skypeck busied himself with the resurrection of steinbeer in America, businessperson Skypeck saw a unique opportunity to promote his new beer, then known as Boscos Stone beer. "We did a good job alerting the local media and all three television stations, and public radio did a report," he recalls. National Public Radio picked up the local public radio, which then sparked a mention in USA Today. The widespread media coverage prompted Skypeck to change the name of his brew to reflect its minor celebrity status. Thus was born Boscos Famous Flaming Stone Beer.
Customers immediately took to the smooth, caramel flavor profile of the stone beer. "The beer was an immediate success," notes Skypeck. "We toned everything down in the flavor profile, so the caramelization created by the reaction of the wort on the hot stones becomes the primary flavor component. It's a very unique caramel flavor which is distinctly different from caramel malt."
That such an ancient brewing method became so popular with customers was a surprise to Skypeck. "We did it originally as an experiment, but when you have something so successful, you can't turn your back on it. We decided we'd do it again, then we did it again, and it's currently the best selling product in all three of our breweries. It's kind of beer archaeology in a way that we have managed to re-enact on a regular basis."
Though Skypeck parlayed the beer's interesting provenance into a public relations success, he bristles at the thought of labeling his beer as mere artifice. "I don't want to think of the stone beer as a gimmick because it's not. It's something traditional and unique, but it's helped us make a name for ourselves on a larger scale than just our local markets. That helps when people are traveling from out-of-town. Ultimately, it's a very positive thing for us to have somewhat of a national reputation for the product, even though it's not available on anything but a local scale. There's not too many products around like that."
While some brewers look to the past for inspiration, others are driven to explore new brewing territories. In the early 1990s, a whole new breed of beers emerged from a group of inspired, enterprising brewers - high alcohol beers. To be sure, higher alcohol beers existed before the release of Sam Adams Triple Bock in 1994. But the Triple Bock turned the high alcohol game on its head. Where previous brewers satisfied themselves with achieving 12, 14 and even 16 percent alcohol, the beers still fairly resembled their respective styles - eisbocks, bocks, and Belgian triples all tasted as they were supposed to. With the advent of the Triple Bock, however, the inventive Sam Adams brewers not only pushed through the existing alcohol ceiling, but managed to create an entirely distinctive product as well.
Developed in 1991 and first released in 1994, the original Triple Bock felt more comfortable around fine cognacs and ports than around average, everyday lagers and ales. Weighing in at an imposing 17.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), the Triple Bock is a sipping beer, one to be enjoyed by a fire, in a snifter at the end of a memorable evening. With hints of vanilla, oak, and a deep, warming alcohol base, many drinkers are initially turned off by the product. In fact, the list of those individuals who truly appreciated their first sampling of Triple Bock is intriguingly short - a testament to the brewers and their creation of such a distinctive beer that even the most ardent beer snob needs a moment to sturdy himself after his first sip.
The Triple Bock is an ale that undergoes a deliberately slow fermentation process. During this process, the brew ages nearly 6 months in recycled Tennessee whiskey barrels, which add the enticing flavor layers of oak and vanilla.
After creating this devilish concoction, the brainchild of founder Jim Koch, the beer needed a name. Seeing that it did not resemble any particular category, the brewery came up with its own name, according to brewer Grant Wood. "It's like naming your children, it sort of rolls off the tongue - Triple Bock. There's single bock, double bock, but there's never been a triple bock. It sounded good. There had never been one before and this is a beer that has never existed before. So the feeling was we could name it anything we wanted to because no one has ever made something like this before."
Sensing a challenge at hand, others soon began to nip at the heals of the Triple Bock. Like competitive groups fighting to be the first to summit a yet unexplored peak, breweries engaged in a race to the top of the alcohol ladder. The two most ardent competitors, who come from very different spectrums of the distended craft/micro brewing category, are no strangers to releasing high-alcohol beers.
In his not-so-secret brewing laboratory in Lewes, Delaware, renowned brewer Sam Calagione and his team of mad scientists contemplated their recent successes. The small brewery produces a well-received line of inventive, style-bending beers, including a hybrid scotch and India pale ale (Indian Brown Ale), a beer brewed with beet sugar and green raisins (Raison d'Etre), and a beer based upon ingredients found in an ancient Egyptian drinking vessel (Midas Touch). The brewers liked what they saw but they lacked fulfillment. They collectively yearned to be pioneers, adventurers in support of the craft of brewing.
In its first foray into the arena of absurdly high alcohol brewing, Dogfish Head produced the World Wide Stout. According to Calagione, Dogfish Head's brewers nervously monitored each moment during the fermentation process and prayed against stuck fermentation. The end result is a luscious brew with hints of bittersweet chocolate, vanilla, coffee, and a strong backbone of alcohol. To achieve this bruiser of an imperial stout (to the extent that Dogfish Head's brews can be categorized), the brewers employ six different yeast strains. The final product, which weighed in at 18 percent ABV, just barely surpassed the Triple Bock to claim the title as "the World's Strongest Beer."
Celebrations at Dogfish Head, however, were short lived. In the small pilot brewery in the Jamaica Plains section of Boston, the brewers at Sam Adams were set to release an updated version of their unusual and category defying Triple Bock. As one of the industry's fiercest competitors, no one expected that Jim Koch would merely stand for the silver medal in the high alcohol category. Shortly after Dogfish Head released its World Wide Stout, Sam Adams upped the ante with its striking brew, the Millennium. Brewed in 1999, Millennium was offered to coincide with the New Year's Eve celebrations and as an alternative to the tired celebratory drink of champagne. At 20 percent ABV, some Millennium-consuming revelers probably woke up the next morning feeling as if they had hit the champagne bottle a bit harder than usual.
With the record shattering alcohol level came a budget shattering price - Millennium retailed around $200 per 750 milliliter bottle. The first bottle of the 3000 released in the limited edition series sold for $4910 at auction. Aged in bourbon barrels and brewed with maple syrup, the Millennium offers a profuse nose of alcohol, with some hints of vanilla and candy sugar. The beer is so strong that it forces you to sip it - slowly. Millennium's power was never more obvious than at its roll-out at the annual Great American Beer Festival in 2000. As there is "nothing that attracts a crowd like a crowd", the five-deep line of people seeking out tastes of Millennium enticed some other drinkers to unwittingly try the World's Strongest Brew. From their collective reactions, an unknowing passerby could not be blamed for thinking that the Sam Adams representatives were passing out consumptive samples of Liquid Drain-o, if not low quality, East European grain alcohol. Far from being something with which you could clean auto parts, the Millennium is the quintessential sipping brew. Beware those who attempt to drink it at a pace greater than two ounces at a sitting. Would you even consider swigging single malt scotch?
This battle of the brewers brings us to the present day. Both Dogfish Head and Sam Adams are now releasing two beers whose alcohol levels exceed even those offered by the Triple Bock, World Wide Stout, and Millennium. With the production of the World Wide Stout in their back pockets, and the gauntlet thrown down with the release of Millennium, Dogfish Head's brewers now offer the Raison Extra with a 21 percent ABV. Like its younger brother, the Raison d'Etre, the new brew employs beet sugar and green raisins in the brewing process.
Sam Adams is preparing to release its Utopias MMII (Millennium II), weighing in at a monstrous 24 percent a.b.v. This current reigning king of heavy alcohol beers employs multiple yeast strains to achieve its impressive alcohol target, and will sell for over $100 per 24 ounce bottle.
Grant Wood notes that the brewers are pioneering a new area of brewing with the production of these high-octane brews. "We learned a lot from the creation of Triple Bock with high alcohol fermentation, using barrels for aging, and we took those lessons and attempted to refine what we learned from Triple Bock. Again, it's our desire to try a unique alcoholic category where we have about the only three entries. They are the children of Triple Bock."
The continuing battles to outdo one another aside, the competitive process is changing the very face of beer. Inventive brewers are taking their craft to a higher level, producing some beers that should garner respect from even the most zealous wine and spirits devotees. Similarly, votaries of the past further challenge the beer drinking community with their fruitful endeavors. Be it through brewing archaeology or invention, brewers continue to offer challenge and delight.