In pursuit of the outermost edge of beer
By Jack Kenny
Cultures take certain words and beat them to death. Awesome, once meant to describe profound reverence, has been trivialized beyond recognition, and evokes pain in a listener when it is spoken by anyone over 50. Extreme is in the process of being warped by over-use and abuse, but it still works when we apply it to our favorite beverage.
The original meaning of extreme, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “outermost, farthest from the center.” With respect to beer, sports and fashion, it means “going to the utmost extent; exceeding the limits of moderation.”
An extreme beer exhibits excess in one or more ways, and first among these is high alcohol content. It can also inhabit the far end of a beer style, or be brewed with unorthodox ingredients. The intent of an extreme brew is to excite craft brew geeks – I mean aficionados – who can’t get enough of it, and never will because it’s brewed in limited quantity, to elevate the cachet of the brewer, and to justify a high price.
Extreme is relative. In the 1970s I thought that Ballantine IPA was extreme, because of its uncharacteristic hoppy flavor. In the ’80s Chimay Tripel, at 9% abv, was a ticket to the Holy of Holies. Today, 9% is de rigueur to the extreme set. Now they ask for Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, at 18% or 21%, whatever it might be. They – a special set of acquisitors – want Samuel Adams Utopias, the 27% abv “beer” that retails at nearly $200 for a 750 ml taste.
Extreme beer is created from a superfluity of ingredients: grains rich in starches unlocked by malting into sugars eaten by vigorous yeasts whose skill is measured in yield of alcohol, carbon dioxide, aromas and flavors; hops in happy largesse added at two or more stages of preparation; the optional infusion of fruits—fresh, dried and extracted—spices, herbs, wine, spiders, spells, pieces of the true cross and aging in magic barrels.
The only way to produce a beer with high alcohol content is through the action of yeast on lots of grain. More than 1,500 species of yeast exist, that we know of, and only a few can make beer. Most are not hardy enough to feast in the fermentation tank, and will quit well before a satisfactory level of alcohol is produced. Beer yeasts are tough, and the strongest are used to brew extreme beers. Still, the upper end of alcohol production for a champion yeast is between 15% and 20% abv, at which point the grain’s supply of sugar is exhausted and the yeast cells die. Beers that claim a higher percentage are brewed with the addition of sugar so that the fermentation continues.
Strong beer in the making is unbearably sweet and must be tempered by hops. Traditional strong ales, such as barleywines and imperial stouts, employ hops only to tone down the sweetness to a palatable level; the hops themselves usually don’t exhibit much character.
The word imperial – once used to describe the sweet, strong stouts preferred by Russian royalty and Baltic peoples – has been appropriated by today’s brewers to denote any extreme beer within an established style. Imperial IPAs are now commonplace, and imperial porters and pilsners aren’t far behind. At some point you can’t call them extreme anymore, because extremities are thinly populated.
High strength beers are full-bodied, and often will exhibit aroma and flavor characteristics of dark fruit, such as plums, prunes, raisins or dates. These do not appeal to every palate, but folks who love them, really love them. My first extreme beer, Samuel Adams Triple Bock, was a bit viscous and bore the whisper of a head and little carbonation. The nose gave that dark fruit experience, and the taste brought forth one word: “Sherry.”
Extreme beers don’t have to be high in alcohol. Consider America’s love affair with hops. For the past couple of years Stone Brewing has been teasing its devotees with its “Enjoy By” series. These are beers with calendar dates in the name – Enjoy By 2.14.14 – and they provide a snootful of hops the like of which is hard to find anywhere. Truly over the top.
Jack Kenny has been writing The Beer Column for The Connecticut Beverage Journal since 1995. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.