There was a time, maybe a decade ago, when the chatter in the beer press was about “Extreme Beer.” The meaning changed over time – first it was simply beers that were very high alcohol or packed to bursting with hops, or more often both. Outfits like Stone Brewing in San Diego led the charge, with bigger, more muscular beers with names like “Arrogant Bastard” and “Ruination.” Then the meaning shifted to focus more on crazy experiments, brewing with oddball ingredients, fermenting with weird yeasts, or perhaps aging the beer in wooden barrels. The poster child for this was Dogfish Head, where the colorful owner, Sam Calagione, wasn’t afraid to brew with raisins or apricots, or build fermenting tanks out of exotic tropical wood.
Funny thing is, you hardly ever hear the phrase “extreme beer” any more. It’s not that the public’s taste for bigger, badder and weirder has slackened. Instead, what was “extreme” 10 years ago is now the everyday beer. Craft beer people hardly blink anymore at a beer that has an alcohol by volume of 7, 8, even 9 percent. Just last week, the guys at TAPS Petaluma had a tap-takeover night with Dogfish Head and they tweeted “Just realized the lowest abv [Dogfish Head] on tap tonight is 9%…. Umm sorry bout that… Not! Cheers.” I was chatting with Fal Allen of Anderson Valley Brewing last month and he was talking about the company’s Hop Ottin’ IPA, which comes in at about 7 percent ABV and 78 IBUs. When that was introduced many years ago, he said, that was considered pretty out there. Now that’s considered a mild, middle of the pack IPA, even though it remains among the strongest beers the brewery produces with any regularity.
But instead of continuing the arms race for more alcohol and hops, Allen and many other brewers are going back the other direction, looking at lighter styles. “You can’t drink an 8 percent beer … you can’t drink three of them and feel good the next morning,” he said.
There isn’t a clear word for the trend yet: some people call such beers “Sessionable,” because you can drink more in a single session, but personally I find that an ugly word. It sounds faintly medical, like you should take an antibiotic to cure such a condition. Other people have tried “drinkable,” but unfortunately, that conjures up the marketing campaign of Bud Light, which isn’t exactly the image craft brewers want to project. As one of Beer Country’s Twitter friends noted last week, it’s just a short step from “Drinkability” to “Tastes Great! Less Filling!” So maybe that’ s a non-starter.
Whatever you call it, it is clear that there is a small but growing counter-revolution brewing in the beer industry. I wrote about some local examples last week, including Anderson Valley, Carneros Brewing, and Woodfour Brewing. It’s even hit my tastebuds. I still stock my fridge mostly with robust IPAs like Bear Republic’s Racer 5, Sierra Nevada’s Celebration, and Lagunitas IPA, but more and more I’ve been turning back to milder old friends, like Victory’s exquisite Prima Pils, or the lovely kellerbier from Hopmonk – not only lighter on the alcohol, but also easier on the palate and better with most food than hop-driven monsters.
But that counter trend is still small. Big IPAs and Double IPAs still rule the landscape – Russian River‘s Pliny the Elder isn’t going anywhere. And a few brewers are still reaching for the stars in terms of strength. Just last month, a Scottish brewer claimed the “strongest beer in the world” title, releasing “Snake Venom,” which comes it at a staggering 67.5 percent ABV (just for reference, your average shot of bourbon is between 40 and 50 percent ABV, depending on the brand). And with higher alcohol generally comes higher calories, and one 275 ml bottle of Snake Venom, just about 9 fluid ounces, will reportedly deliver about 2,025 calories, just about the same as if you were to cram down seven McDonald’s cheeseburgers at a sitting.
And this month, Sam Adams released its latest batch of the periodic “Utopia” series, an ultra-ABV beer that was once just about the strongest beer you could get your hands on at about 29 percent ABV. That seems almost laughably quaint now in comparison with the dizzying monsters cooked up by the Scots.
Makes me want a nice tangy pilsner all of a sudden.
- Sean Scully