Extending our vision of beer
Practically speaking, by paying higher prices we give brewers reason to make the beers we want to drink. Think about Thomas Hardy Ale and Samichlaus, two imported beers known for their alcoholic strength when few such beers were sold in America. They had cult followings, yet the breweries producing those two stopped brewing them without even a simple press release. The beers returned to life at other breweries because of consumer demand, in this case consumers willing to pay higher prices.
Or try this bit of math. In June, Russian River Brewing in California began selling two beers, Temptation and Supplication, at $7.99 and $8.99 per 375ml-corked bottle. These beers took 15 months to make, spending a year in wine barrels in a 200-square foot barrel room before they were released. Russian River could have installed three 40-barrel fermenters in the same space, and produced 2,040 (31-gallon) barrels of beer compared to the 55 barrels of wood-aged beer the room yields in a year.
Given growing demand for other Russian River beers, brewer-owner Vinnie Cilurzo had to consider the opportunity cost. “If we did it on pure economics it would probably be priced even higher but I don’t think the market can bear that right now,” he said.
He ages Temptation in French oak chardonnay barrels, letting the blond beer absorb wine and oak flavors while it undergoes a second fermentation with Brettanomyces (wild yeast). The reddish Supplication also ages on wood after primary fermentation. Sour cherries, three strains of Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus spend a full year with the beer in French oak Pinot Noir barrels.
Cilurzo spent much of 16 years working in his family’s winery. He appreciates the irony that he turned to brewing when he was 24 because he discovered he could make beer in 21 days, and now some of his beers age as long as wine. “These beers reflect a slower pace of life,” he said. “Americans are so into ‘I want it all and I want it now.’ That’s why I don’t think many brewers will get into aging. They aren’t going to commit the time or the space.”
Distinctive beers such as these push our idea of what beer should be forward, creating demand for a wider range of beers that eventually spread the category horizontally. For many the term “extreme beer” means only one with a massive a malt and/or hop bill that makes it clear why the beer costs more, but beer needn’t be excessively strong nor call on twenty-first century creativity to make us think.
Consider Mahr’s Ungespoundet Hefetrüb from Bamberg, Germany, which Men’s Journal recently deemed the second best lager in the world. At the Corkscrew Wine Emporium in Urbana, Ill., beer manager Drew Hagen sells only beers that are “entirely left on the dial.” He begs breweries to send their Imperial Stouts and Imperial IPAs — and he sells the heck out of Mahr’s.
“We like extreme beers,” he said. “But I tell people you don’t drink those every day. Have a Mahr’s Bräu, have two. It’s a session beer. A beer should create an experience, leave you something to remember. This one’s not going to be Tom Cruise in a movie, it’s going to be a great supporting character.”
Mahr’s contains a modest 5.2% alcohol by volume, isn’t filtered or pasteurized and must be served fresh to be appreciated. Freshness is one thing you should expect to pay extra for in a beer where that is so important ($3.19 for a 500ml bottle at the Corkscrew).