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Destined for the X-philes

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Jim Koch takes credit for coining the term "extreme beer." The founder and chairman of Boston Beer Co., best known for its Samuel Adams brand, first applied the expression to his Triple Bock, a dark, syrupy ale that upon its release in 1994 became America's strongest commercial beer, clocking in at 17.5 percent alcohol by volume. Koch has broken his record several times, most recently with the 2009 vintage of his Utopias, a copper-colored liquid with a flavor somewhere between port wine and cognac and an alcohol content of 27 percent. (The brew kettle-shaped bottles, selling for $150 and higher, should be hitting select retail outlets about now.)

But don't confuse "extreme" with "strong," Koch says. "Extreme is bringing something new to the brewing process. It's like creating a whole new genre of music, as opposed to just playing the same music louder."

Nanny State, an "imperial mild" from the BrewDog microbrewery in Fraserburgh, Scotland, is the anti-Utopias, but just as extreme. It measures 1.1 percent alcohol; you'd be hard-pressed to get tipsy on a case of it. But it is crammed with hops. The brewer's claimed level of 225 international bitterness units is the most extreme I've ever heard. (IBUs measure a beer's level of alpha acids, the primary bittering compound in hops. For purposes of comparison, Budweiser measures about 12 IBUs; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, 37; a typical imperial IPA, 75 to 100.)

Nanny State is a highly eccentric beer, the equivalent of erecting a building 10 stories high and two feet wide. It has a thin chocolate caramel flavor upfront and an acrid, palate-numbing bitterness in back. The beer is a bit of a gimmick. BrewDog launched it as a bookend to its Tokyo, an 18.2 percent alcohol ale that is said to be the strongest beer in Britain.

Far more palatable (and with the added advantage of being available here) is the same brewery's Atlantic IPA. This is a balanced, even restrained, version of an India pale ale with a dry, woody finish that stirs an appetite. What's extreme is the process of how it is made. Based on an 1856 recipe, this beer underwent a sea journey similar to that of the original Indian pale ales that were shipped around the Horn of Africa to Her Majesty's troops on the subcontinent. BrewDog founder James B. Watt loaded eight barrels of his IPA aboard a mackerel trawler, where the beer spent two months on the choppy North Atlantic, the buffeting of the boat spurring the yeast to greater activity. Unfortunately, extreme beer often comes with an extreme price: An 11.2-ounce bottle set me back $29 (at Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits).

What else is extreme? Hybrid styles such as Sublimely Self Righteous Ale from Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif. Its floral aroma and resiny hop blast on the palate scream out West Coast IPA, but the beer is as black as coal and has some of the roasted-coffee flavor of a stout. A black IPA seems a contradiction in terms, but here it is.

Unusual ingredients can qualify a beer as extreme. Quercus Vitis Humulus, from Otter Creek Brewing Co. in Middlebury, Vt., is an ale fermented with sauvignon blanc grape juice, fermented with a champagne yeast and aged in French oak.

If Quercus manages to be both beer and wine, then Garrett Oliver's Manhattan Project sought to bridge the divide between beer and New York's best-known cocktail, the Manhattan. Oliver, brew master of the Brooklyn Brewery, crafted this draft-only offering using the same botanicals that go into vermouth and bitters, adding a dash of tart cherry juice and aging the beer in Rittenhouse rye whiskey barrels. Brasserie Beck emptied a keg of Manhattan Project in just a few days. (Oliver's next Brewmaster's Reserve release is Backbreaker, an English-style strong ale so named because he personally hand-malted much of the grain during a visit to Norfolk, England, last summer.)

Whereas American brewers excel at pushing the envelope, Germans are the hidebound traditionalists of the beer world. Their centuries-old Reinheitsgebot ("purity law"), as amended through the ages, outlaws all ingredients in their lagers except for barley malt, hops, yeast and water. German brewing is technically perfect, but there is a certain sameness to the beers. "In focusing on preserving their brewing tradition, they lost sight of the need to push it forward into the future," Koch says.

Koch is working with the world's oldest brewery, Weihenstephan in Freising, Bavaria (founded in 1040), to jump-start a new tradition of innovation. "My suggestion was, let's develop an entirely new style within the confines of the Reinheitsgebot, something radically different," he says of his first meeting with his counterpart at Weihenstephan, Josef Schr├Ądler, a year and a half ago. Their collaborative beer doesn't have a name yet. According to Koch, it will have a double-digit alcohol content but a champagne-like effervescence and crispness on the palate, quite unlike the heavy malt character of a German doppelbock. The brew will undergo multiple fermentations, possibly with both ale and lager yeast strains.

Corked bottles should hit the market in spring 2010. "They've actually had a good time doing this," Koch says of his German hosts. Extreme can be fun.

Kitsock can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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