Brewing Because It’s There
The mavericks of American brewing have inspired the term “extreme beer.” Like the extreme sports movement, extreme beer suggests stretching boundaries just for the sake of it, conquering the next peak of alcohol strength or hops bitterness “because it’s there.”
The phrase may be new, but the impulse to test limits isn’t. It’s hard to recall now, but Anchor’s Old Foghorn and Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine were the extreme brews of their day, with formidable alcoholic strength and, especially in the case of Bigfoot, hop bitterness that was startling.
Today, extreme beer may encompass any brewing that is out of the ordinary. But, for many, it is most closely associated with beers such as the double or Imperial India pale ale, a new beer style that had to be defined to impose some coherence on the most out-there of American beers.
Not everyone is an enthusiast. Rich Doyle, president of Harpoon Brewing Co., is skeptical: “If the purpose is high alcohol or high IBUs, I have to ask, is that crafting a beer or is that just turning up the volume? To use the music analogy, just because you’re louder, it doesn’t mean you’re better.”
Certainly, like extreme sportsmen whose thrills rely in part on the risk—or the reality—of calamity, extreme beers often careen off the track into disaster. Giddy levels of bitterness or alcohol may give a brewery bragging rights, but at the cost of balance and drinkability. But a number of breweries stand out for producing challenging brews that hit high numbers and taste great.
Everything about Stone Brewing Co., from its menacing gargoyle artwork to its user-unfriendly beer names (Arrogant Bastard, Ruination IPA), throws down the gauntlet to the beer drinker. With slogans like “You’re Not Worthy,” owner Greg Koch and his company make it clear that they’ll brew whatever they like.
Stone does brew a pale ale—the rent-paying flagship, again—but their reputation among beer lovers relies on expressions of excess: beers that are over-the-top, in-your-face, testosterone-driven and just plain fun.
Avery Brewing Co. in Colorado emphasized their Imperial IPA’s regal connections by naming it The Maharaja. Other styles—strong in alcohol and Belgian-inflected—are aged in wooden casks chosen for the flavors imparted by the wines they once contained.