By Chris Wright
on 3.28.14
Photo by C Wright and K.B. Gould

A
s craft brews become more commonplace and the average craft drinker becomes comfortable with big IPAs, double stouts and saisons, brewers are faced with a new obstacle: what to do next. Many have already walked the well-trodden path of refreshing lighter brews, like your “session” beers, which trend toward hoppiness and lite-beer ABVs. But what about beers that take a sharp left where the road diverges, to the land of weird?

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This path gets a little rougher and a lot more odd. This is a land of flavor profiles that are battlefields rather than pastoral scenes, of big bad ingredients and alcohol contents that would drop a pub-frequenting bull moose. These tend to be the rare finds of the beer world, ones that get secreted away to age in dark cellars or traded with like-minded drinkers for other legendary brews. But every year craft fans get a chance to pay admission to a free-for-all zoo of the wildest ones, captured and served at the Extreme Beer Festival in Boston, organized by Dogfish Head Brewery and beer dictionary and rating service Beeradvocate.com.

The 11th annual festival was the first held in Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center, a hulking hangar of a place that had more than enough room for 68 breweries and the 2,250 drinkers who came in three waves over two days to drink as many beers as they could — more than 300 of them. There were American wild ales, Goses, sours, imperial IPAs, imperial stouts, Belgian doubles, tripels and quads, barleywines, vegetable beers, saisons and pilsners. If you could name the style, there was a weird version being poured. The place reeked of booze.

There were American wild ales, Goses, sours, imperial IPAs, imperial stouts, Belgian doubles, tripels and quads, barleywines, vegetable beers, saisons and pilsners. If you could name the style, there was a weird version being poured.

The masses of festival-goers sampled those beers one two-ounce pour at a time, reusing the same plastic cups and occasionally washing them out at miniature water cooler oases set throughout the indoor market atmosphere. The stalls of that market were the brewer stands, where standard orange and white coolers had been rigged with tap handles and connected to tangles of plastic tubes and kegs. The brewers and their staffs worked the makeshift bars, taking orders from lines of drinkers. These lines showed the crowd’s favor: short or nonexistent in front of up-and-coming breweries and even great ones that weren’t quite considered top-tier by the cognoscenti; huge in front of worshiped companies like Founders, Green Flash and Funky Buddha.

The beers were unbelievable, made with wonky ingredients and exotic brewing methods. The list of flavors and ingredients read like a Whole Foods stocking order: chiles and peppers, citrus, smoke, herbs, chocolate and cocoa, coffee, raspberries and cherries, honey, maple, peanut butter, nuts, guava, fig, melon, ginger, cucumber, oyster, bacon, coconut, rice. Many of the beers had been matured and made nebulous in oak, wine, whiskey, rum, rye, brandy, cognac and tequila barrels.

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The crowd was a median representation of true craft beer fanhood. Hipsters with groomed mustaches huddled in groups and compared notes; beer dweebs with t-shirts from rare breweries flew from stall to stall, swirling beer under their noses like wine. There was a surprising amount of women, many of them exploring the booths with a boyfriend or husband, though none looked like they had been dragged unwillingly. Brewers and staff, the stunning majority of them bearded and, in general, hirsute, mixed with other booths and fans or perfected their slot-machine-pull tap handle motions and friendly “enjoy!”s. One tall man wore flamboyant Lederhosen, though he clearly wasn’t German. Everyone was excited and drunk, but their shared passion held them to friendliness and good, if slightly raucous, behavior. A few “U.S.A.” chants, a few slightly obscene poses for pictures. Not bad, considering the amount of beer being gulled.

The common thread from one stall to the next was that each brewery sought their own unique version of beer extremism. The bent was toward complex, loud and delicious, but those weren’t absolutes. Outlandish or angry, high-ABV or easy-drinking, the beers all explored new territory but were held to the same underlying standards by their breweries as straightforward flagship pale ales, lagers, porters and IPAs.

At Allagash Brewing Company, for example, all the beers are brewed in the Belgian style. Their Winslow strong dark ale follows standard procedure right up until they age it in rum barrels from New England Distillery, just down the road from Allagash’s own headquarters. This aging imparts boozy caramel flavors and boosts ABV from roughly 10 percent to roughly 13 percent. The beer’s creation was a matter of both convenience and an interest in pushing the brewery’s boundaries, a bearded brewer’s assistant explained.

Short’s, a small brewery in the tiny northern Michigan town of Bellaire, drew attention from attendees, particularly for the succulent Juicy Tree IPA, which is brewed with spruce tips, juniper and cranberries. “We have four flagship beers”, said Pauline Knighton, a member of the brewery, “but every one and a half weeks we’re brewing a one-off beer.” That commitment to extraordinary beers produced at extraordinary rates — they’re often inspired by daily culinary finds and contributed to by the entire staff — comes with some sacrifices that to many other craft brewers would seem overly prohibitive. “We’re a Michigan-only brewery, and we’re committed to staying that way”, Knighton said. “If we expanded outside of Michigan, we couldn’t keep our [unique beer] production up.”

The common thread from one stall to the next was that each brewery sought their own unique version of beer extremism.

Brewers weren’t only committed to distinct styles or regions. Attitude itself can become a credo, as Stone Brewing Co. showed. This is a brand decidedly entrenched in its beliefs — just check out their beer names and labels for stubborn credos and lectures on how unworthy its drinkers are. Brewer Josh Mott confirmed this ethos, which is firmly on display in Stone’s Crime and Punishment beers, which take almost S&M-like tolls on imbibers thanks to their physically painful chile capsaicin levels. “We’re not afraid of scaring off customers”, said Mott. “We came up with a motto: If it’s too expensive, you’re too cheap. We make our beers first for us, and second for the people like us.”

The general trend across all of these pioneering breweries and brews was that boundaries were being pushed without sacrificing the quality of the beer itself. In years past, an imperial stout brewed with chiles felt decidedly like a gimmick, lacking any sensibility or balance. But the best beers at this year’s event were brewed with even more madness — with barbecue dry rubs, or Chai, or in the style of a margarita mix — and still felt level-headed. The affect was Wonka-like: absurdity was made delicious without losing its air of the fantastical.

Brewing will hit its limits, and the sea of beers sampled here already have, in a way. Most will likely be confined to the breweries and their onsite brewpubs or to small batches sought after by aficionados. Yes, there was talk of the “next big thing” in craft beer (fruited Goses and Berliner Weisses, if you’re wondering), but none of the unusual beers at this year’s fest seem to fit the bill of a popular hit. Any brewer would tell you that isn’t the point. Instead these were delicious exercises in just what a beer could be, exploring new design like an automaker might with a concept car. Within their own wheelhouses, brewers were redefining themselves, and expanding the way drinkers define beer, one two-ounce pour at a time.

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