We've all heard similar stories, most of which spiraled downward. But this one has a happy ending.
This is the story of inventive brewers thirsting for new flavors. A thirst that cannot be satiated by the curriculum presented in the Association of Brewer's style guidelines. Thankfully, these brewing misfits have found fixes for their experimentation cravings.
Enterprising and delightfully off-kilter brewers are inspired by several sources to produce a range of eccentric brews. Geoff Larson, president of the Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau, points to the importance of beer writers in the development and inspiration of his work. Larson refers to writers and researchers as "the unsung heroes of the beer industry". After reading the works of Michael Jackson, Larson learned that in some European brewing communities, smoke was a positive flavor component. Armed with this intriguing tidbit, Larson created one of the most award winning brews in the history of the Great American Beer Festival - the Alaskan Smoked Porter. Had Larson not known smoke flavor was an appropriate flavor characteristic in beer, he never would have created his prize winning beer.
Larson also notes that modern experimentation is sometimes a bow to ancient brewing practices, or even an attempt to resurrect them. "I think we take a big inspiration from history," he says. "When we started the business in 1986, we did a lot of research in historical libraries about what the breweries were doing in Alaska. Alaska had 50 breweries before Prohibition. They accepted that there were a lot of challenges for early brewers here and they embraced it. Our smoked porter is a reaffirmation of the old ways of Alaskan breweries."
While research and history serve to inspire, many brewers simply enjoy experimentation for its own sake. Vermont Pub and Brewery owner and brewer Greg Noonan agrees that experimentation is part of the excitement in professional brewing. "I think for the brewers, it's diversity. It's trying something different from what you are doing every day in the brewery. It's something with a twist to it."
Perhaps the best example of extreme brewing is the model set by Sam Calagione of the Dogfish Head Brewing Company. Calagione is a model of the experimental brewer, having produced some eclectic and legendary American beers. Calagione grew tired of conventional brewing, so he tried some new approaches. Sometimes they involved brewing with whatever was around, akin to a chef pulling random spices off his shelves and tossing them into the sauce pot. Calagione revels in the self-professed "blissful inefficiency" of his recipes.
Where many brewers tout the fact that they brew with only four ingredients, Calagione brags about flouting traditional brewing rules. "We have one beer out of seven that we bottle that obeys the German Purity Law," says Calagione. "We are really passionate about doing things that haven't been done before. So we brew anti-styles or non-existent styles. We really create our own styles, and it's usually from our own inspiration."
Most of Dogfish Head's lineup is experimental in nature. The Chicory Stout is a rich brew made with roasted chicory, organic Mexican coffee, licorice root, and oatmeal. The Immort Ale is a disturbingly complex beer brewed with peat-smoked barley, organic juniper berry, vanilla, and maple syrup. The beer is laid down on oak for at least two months before release. The aroma will leave beer connoisseurs scratching their heads trying to place the variety of complex aromas, while the 11 percent a.b.v. will warm their souls. The Indian Brown Ale is a cross between the India pale ale, American pale ale, and Scotch ale styles. This schizophrenic brew also includes carmelized brown sugar, boasts a 7.2 percent a.b.v. and offers 50 I.B.U.'s to balance the mix. The much lauded Raison d'Etre is brewed with beet sugar, green raisins, and fermented with a Belgian yeast strain.
Dogfish Head opened in 1995 and is named after an area in the Northeast where Calagione vacationed as child. The brewery seeks to bring original brews to a small audience of beer lovers. The first brewpub to open in Delaware, Dogfish Head produced its first beers on a tiny half-barrel brewing system made up of converted kegs and propane burners. The Frankenstinian spawned brews from this meager set-up quickly caught the eye of beer connoisseurs. Soon, Dogfish Head's beers were sought out at major festivals and drinkers clamored for bottles at their local package stores.
There is a reason Dogfish Head receives so much attention. While some experimental brewers might offer a comparable seasonal product or two, the above noted brews are not limited to Dogfish Head's seasonal portfolio. These incredible beers comprise Dogfish Head's regular lineup. Dogfish Head's seasonal offerings, including a stout boasting an 18 percent a.b.v., could send the beer connoisseur into convulsions.
If the little brewery's experimental streak fails to impress, Calagione's decision to help unearth a little bit of brewing history might catch your attention. In 1957, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania excavated a burial chamber and coffin purportedly belonging to the legendary King Midas. Among the other treasures of the tomb, researchers found 157 Iron Age drinking vessels. Through the wonders of molecular science, researchers isolated and identified residues inside the vessels. Dr. Patrick McGovern determined that the ancient cocktail combined grape wine, barley beer, and honey mead.
To recreate the ancient drink, the UPenn Museum teamed up with Dogfish Head. The brewery's adapted recipe employs ingredients likely used at the time of King Midas, including barley, white Muscat grapes, honey, and saffron. The final product is somewhere between a beer, a Chardonnay, and honey wine. The drink is 9.0 percent a.b.v. and is available in a 750ml corked champagne bottle.
Short of digging up ancient pharaohs and openly revolting against the brewing industry's norms and guidelines, approaches to experimentation can also be subtle. There are brewers who experiment by bringing new styles to regions suffering through same old, uninspired styles of beer. This approach hardly requires a revolution. The experimentation may simply involve Northeast brewers moving away from the use of the Ringwood yeast strain and the production of traditional British style ales. Or brewers in the Pacific Northwest moving away from pummeling drinkers with brutally hoppy beers. The notion of experimentation need not exist in a vacuum, but can instead be defined in part by the geographic and consumer contexts in which the beer is served.
Great examples of this form of experimentation presently exist. In the heart of Peter Austin country in the American Northeast, the Allagash Brewing Company produces a refreshing line of Belgian style ales, ranging from the spicy Grand Cru to the complex malt profile of the Dubbel Reserve.
In the Midwest, where straightforward lagers rule, two brewing companies produce some of the more obscure German varieties. Wisconsin's Capital Brewery produces four phenomenal doppelbocks, ranging from the strong and malty Autumnal Fire and Dark Doppelbock, to the smooth and quaffable Blonde Doppelbock, to the style-bending delicacy of the Weizen Doppelbock.
Across the Mississippi, the historic Schell's Brewing Company brews a range of German lagers and ales. Like all proper Minnesotans (aside from Prince), Schells is far from flashy. America's second oldest brewery is also one of its most industrial in design. But what Schell's lacks in glitz, it makes up for with its beers. While consumers may never be blown away by a particular beer in Schell's lineup, they will also never be disappointed. Schell's varied line of German offerings includes the Schmaltz's Alt, the Maifest Maibock, the widely anticipated Bock, and the biggest offering, the Doppelbock.
Other brewers see room for experimentation in their regular rotation of beers. "Every beer is an adventure, although there is a definitive recipe," says Steve Miller, head brewer at the Vermont Pub and Brewery. "Although we strive greatly for consistency, and the brewmaster decides we are going to use the same recipe, there are over 50 different parameters that impact the recipe of different things that can be tweaked. It's very likely the beer comes out a bit different, be it temperature or water pH. So there will be some things that will be different, and I think that's part of the allure and attraction as a brewer to brewing micro beers. It's not a perfect science - like at Budwesier where you use a computer and the same ingredients are used everytime."
FINDING a HOME
So where do these misfit beers go when they can find no home in the traditional, approved style categories? And can these experiments be considered styles of their own? Putting aside the existential question of "what is a style?", experimental beers are increasingly finding a place in the repertoire of American beers.
As inventive brewers have created inspired new beers, the Association of Brewers has recognized the contributions with the creation of several new style categories. Recent additions include a range of categories: fruit beers, raspberry beers, smoked beers, chocolate and cocoa flavored beers, "specialty" beers, specialty honey beers, herb and spice beers, and rye beers.
For those products that do not fit within existing style guidelines, the AOB suggests the "experimental" category. This category debuted in 1998, and is a true hodge-podge of different flavors and approaches. The AOB defines an experimental beer as "any lager, ale or other that is primarily grain-based and employs unusual techniques and/or ingredients". For competitions, brewers must highlight the uniqueness of their particular approach and/or the ingredients used. A brewer's creativity is also considered.
Past GABF and World Beer Cup winners in the experimental category run the gamut of flavors from tart raspberry fruit beers to those brewed with heather and juniper to malty sweet barleywines. The eclectic nature of this category also lends itself to broad interpretation, of which the New Glarus Raspberry Tart is a good example. A wonderfully tart and refreshing beer, the Raspberry Tart is a multiple award-winning beer at the GABF and World Beer Cup. The beer took home gold in the experimental category at the 2000 World Beer Cup. A few months later, the beer captured the gold medal in the fruit beer category at the GABF, even though that competition also included an experimental beer category.
The AOB also provides style guidelines for those beers brewed with unusual fermentables, including maple syrup, honey, or potatoes. These ingredients may be the sole fermentable in a brew or can be used in addition to malted barley. The distinctive characters of these special ingredients should be evident either in the aroma or flavor of the beer, but need be overpowering to the senses. Experimental beers that do not meet the other established style categories are properly entered in this specialty category.
No longer confined to the Land of Unwanted Beers, unusual products now find their homes in the increasingly popular experimental and specialty beer style divisions. The experimental beers are always among the most popular draws at beer festivals, and often intrigue consumers in pubs and bars across America.
While a brewery's willingness to experiment may be rewarded with increased stature and reputation among beer geeks, brewers see both benefits and potential pitfalls in the consumer market. "It's love or hate," says Alaskan Brewing Company's Geoff Larson of his decidedly uncommon Alaskan Smoked Porter. "After a period of acclimation, even people who don't necessarily like the flavor of beer start to understand it and maybe appreciate it." Larson personally approaches beer in a similar fashion. He notes that while raspberry fruit beers may not be his favorite style, nor one of which he would want to consume very often, he has grown to appreciate them.
Though exciting and challenging for a brewer, experimentation is not always a shrewd financial idea. Steve Miller of the Vermont Pub and Brewery believes that brewpubs are better positioned to experiment. "If you are bottling (an experimental beer) you are relying upon the popularity of a particular style of beer to sell. If it bombs then you've just made a batch of beer and put it into bottles and it will expire. That's a very risky proposition for a microbrewery. Whereas in a brewpub, the shelf-life is considerably longer and less risky."
Moreover, there are some experiments, regardless of a brewery's size, that simply will not appeal to a large enough audience to justify repeated distribution. The Rogue Brewing Company and the Magic Hat Brewing Company have each produced a garlic flavored beer. While these brews provide a peculiar sensory experience, they are unlikely to spawn great consumer allegiance.
While some experiments might not make financial sense, the bold spirit of these adventurous brewers enlivens the spirit of the entire industry and provides opportunities to attract new consumers. Novel approaches to brewing have rendered irrelevant the excuses of those who dislike the flavors of mainstream beers. "Unless you're not drinking beer for personal, health, or religious reasons, there is no such thing as being able to truthfully say that "I don't like beer," says AOB president Charlie Papazian. "There is a beer style and type for everybody. You might not like a traditional pilsner beer or a bock beer or a pale ale, but there are fruit beers, chocolate beers, and weiss beers. There are experimental beers brewed in oak that resemble some of the characters of a good wine or port. So all these new directions fill niches for new consumers that are looking for something to celebrate with and to enjoy."