Liquids: New England 'Extreme' Beers
Nearly a decade ago, I was editor of a highbrow glossy magazine aimed at savvy Gen-X guys with refined tastes for adventure travel, extreme sports, fast cars, fast women, and, above all, a thirst for such outstanding libations as Doppelbocks, Bordeaux, and single malts. The title of this short-lived publication? Beer Connoisseur.
I was aiming to produce a guys’ lifestyle magazine centered around beer, but not the pasteurized, homogenized dreck made by the big brewers. I wanted to showcase the dynamic brews being crafted during what we then called the “microbrew revolution.” It was an exciting time for beer lovers, because the rules of beermaking were suddenly being rewritten. Alas, I lost my first battle when the editorial board put a busty blonde caressing a pint of pilsner on the cover of the premier issue. The rants came pouring in. Serious beer men called us pretentious idiots. Feminists just called us idiots.
Around the same time, brothers Todd and Jason Alström were conjuring up a similar but far less ostentatious homage to so-called craft beer by way of a website they called BeerAdvocate.com. That was back in 1996 when about 20 New England brewers were making craft beer and all across the country, new brewers seemed to be emerging daily. The brothers started the site so drinkers could share tasting notes. Today, BeerAdvocate.com is popular not only with beer geeks: It has become a respected resource for breweries, brewpubs, bars, restaurants, and retail stores.
Despite this evidence of growing interest in good beer, a new report claims that the U.S. beer market is faltering in the face of competition from both wine and spirits. Beer has slowly fallen from a high of nearly 60 percent of all alcohol sold in 1995 to about 57 percent in 2003, according to the trade publication Beer Marketer’s Insights. Sales of both wine and spirits, meanwhile, are up about one percentage point apiece, to nearly 30 and 14 percent, respectively.
What do the Alströms think of this news? Not much, Todd Alström says. He changes the subject to something new and more exciting: extreme beer.
The extreme beer movement is something of an outgrowth of the craft beer movement. Some examples: beer made with heather and lavender instead of hops. Beers aged in Jack Daniel’s oak barrels, reaching an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 20 percent (that’s 40 proof) or more. Traditional beer styles jacked up with double or triple the amount of hops or malt. Beers brewed with chocolate, peanut butter, or espresso beans. Strong porters brewed with Chinese candied ginger, and even ales brewed with oysters or seaweed. These diverse varieties are highly artisanal, Todd Alström says. “And they tweak the palates of not only beer lovers, but also appreciators of wine and spirits,” he says, drawing a parallel to single-malt scotch.
Although the term “extreme beer” might be novel, the idea has been around for quite a few years. Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Company used it back in 1994 to describe Samuel Adams Triple Bock, which was then the strongest beer at 17.5 percent ABV. “Ten years ago Americans were trying to make beer like the English, but then we grew our own hops and made it our way. Now we call it an American double IPA,” says Todd Alström. Basically, that’s a typical IPA with double the hops and touted as having double the flavor and double the strength. “The traditional styles have taken years to evolve, but in America it’s taken just 10. There’s a lot of brewing going on, and that dynamism is really exciting.”
And a lot of it is happening here. Practically every brewpub makes a signature brew, but the most noteworthy, say the Alströms, can be found at the Tap Brewpub in Haverhill, Troutbrook Brewing Company/Thomas Hooker Ales & Lagers in Hartford, and the Samuel Adams Brewery in Jamaica Plain.
So whether you’re raising a pint for Saint Paddy or just taking your daily dose, it shouldn’t be extremely difficult to find a beer of distinction. But it should be extreme.