The World’s Strangest Beers

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 25, Issue 3
July 1, 2004 By

The first thing one notices when surveying the vast landscape of beer is how much it is all the same. Like a great sandy desert, vast swaths of it have a numbing sameness. Well over 90 percent of modern beer is brewed from the same handful of ingredients, to about the same strength, with more or less the same brewing techniques. Fizzy, yellow, a kiss of hops in the better brands.

It’s hard to say exactly how we got ourselves into this predicament, but technology, marketing, taxation and war have all played important roles. In this country, anti-German sentiments stirred up by WWI followed immediately by Prohibition shredded much of what could be termed “beer culture” in America. Lacking a richer social context, beer followed the model of soda pop, a commodity product in branded packaging. In this form it utterly dominated much of the 20th century.

But, like the desert, if you peer into the cracks and crevices, the beer scene teems with life. Specialty shelves in American liquor stores now bulge with a variety of characterful and delicious products. And when one squints into the depths of the past, a nearly psychedelic profusion of startling beers appears out of the mist.

Peering into the Past

As early as ancient Sumeria, 6,000 years ago, many varieties of beer existed. We have written references to strong, weak, sour, sparkling, aged, fresh, black, red and light (whose name, ebla, literally means “lessens the waist”) beers. A profusion of medicinal and culinary plants was available, but the ancient brewers, like modern ones, were reluctant to give up all their secrets. We will have to wait for some future chemical discovery to flesh out the recipes.

Early beer is unquestionably connected to religion, ritual and even spirituality. It is no fluke, for example, that one word for alcohol is “spirits.” Everywhere there was beer, a god—or more likely, goddess—was attributed to it. In Sumeria, Ninkasi was her name. In ancient Egypt, the legend of Sekhmet tells the story of how a beer saved the world of humans from destruction. The Goddess of Destruction was on one of her rampages, but a timely swig of a beer laced with the stupefying narcotic root, mandrake, calmed her rage. Never mind that this beer would have reeked of garlic; such psychoactive beers were widely used for ritual (and possibly medical) purposes in the ancient world.

In 1957, archaeologists digging in the region of ancient Phrygia (now Macedonia) broke through a shaft and discovered an intact royal burial, complete with the remains of a grand funerary feast. The occupant of the tomb turned out to be no less than King Midas himself. The profusion of elaborate ware used for the drink attested to its central role in the ceremony.

Traces of food and drink recovered from these ancient containers remained mute for decades. Then, in 1997, a University of Pennsylvania researcher, Patrick McGovern, submitted some of the scrapings to chromatographic analysis. Chemical markers for honey, grapes and malt were all in evidence, the makings of a strange and wonderful beverage.

McGovern teamed up with Dogfish Head Brewery’s Sam Calagione to produce a beer to serve at a celebratory dinner recreating the king’s funeral banquet. The resulting beer was such a success that Dogfish Head continued to produce it as a specialty product. A pale orangish gold, with a perfumy nose of aromatic grapes, honey and a wisp of exotic saffron, Midas Touch has a delicate crèmant champagne quality.

The Dark Beer Ages

After the fall of the classical world, our attention turns north to the barbarian tribes. They and their predecessors had been drinking alcoholic beverages for some time. A Neolithic people usually called the “Beaker Culture” was widely spread in northwest Europe, and is identified by characteristic ritual drinking vessels found with burials of high-status individuals. Chemical analysis of later Bronze Age vessels revealed traces of a drink made from honey, cranberries and meadowsweet—an herb with some of the same preservative qualities as hops.

Another herb that frequently found its way into ancient beverages was heather. Scotland is its most famous habitat, although heather grows all through the wind-swept northern coastal areas of Europe. It comprises a group of low shrubby evergreen plants (Ling and Erica) well adapted to these harsh environs. Heather blooms in late summer, a bounty of tiny flowers with a delicate honeyish aroma. The earliest inhabitants of Scotland, the Picts, brewed a beer from it.

By the Middle Ages, heather ale had passed into legend. Robert Louis Stevenson famously retold the story. It’s a melodramatic tale, in which the last remaining king of the Picts hurls himself and his sons over a cliff rather than reveal the secret of heather ale. It’s kind of a mystery to me, frankly, because just about every inch of the Hebrides is creepy with heather, and it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this just might be a good thing to add to ale.

At any rate, a homebrew shop owner named Bruce Williams thought so. He began work to recreate the recipe, and the result was Llean Fraoch. It is a malty Scottish ale, lightly hopped, and kissed with freshly harvested heather blossoms, bog myrtle and meadowsweet. The herbs are not at all intrusive and add a layer of fresh floral notes.

Williams has recreated a number of other ancient brews featuring kelp, pine, gooseberries and elderberries. All are tantalizing tastes of the past, and not as weird to drink as they are to read about.

Viking Spirits

Just a little farther north in Scandinavia, a number of ancient folk brews survive. The Vikings drank both mead and beer, but beer was the more everyday tipple. A giant drinking hall, it must be remembered, was central to the metaphysics of this culture. A heavenly reward for those who died in battle, Valhalla was an irresistible recruiting aid.

Because of the terrain and the weather, Scandinavian rural areas remained quite isolated, so many folk traditions have survived. On the island of Gotland a smoked beer called Gotlandsdrickå is still brewed, enthusiastically taken up by the current generation of homebrewers. Its most noticeable feature is the use of birch-smoked malt, which gives the beer a smoky wintergreen aroma. Historically, this was an unhopped beer, using bog-bean or blessed thistle for bittering, although modern versions sometimes use small quantities of hops for their preservative qualities. The herb wild rosemary (Ledum palustre) figured prominently in ancient Viking brews. This dangerous psychoactive herb is reputed to have been responsible for the inhuman fury of the Beserkers, an elite cadre of warriors.

Farther north and east, the Finns, ethnically distinct from the rest of Scandinavia (and related to the Hungarians), still nurture their ancient brewing traditions. Their epic poem, the “Kalevala,” contains an extensive sequence about the search for the right juju to get a fermentation started: “What will bring the effervescence/ Who will add the needed factor/ That the beer may foam and sparkle/ May ferment and be delightful?” With such heritage, it’s not surprising that the Finns still brew an ancient beer called sahti. It is brewed from water steeped with juniper, strained through juniper, and boiled with juniper berries. Finally, it is drunk in juniper-wood mugs. Sensing a theme here?

Sahti is a strong—8 percent alcohol or more—amber, very lightly hopped ale. And, as you would expect, it simply radiates juniper aroma. A good proportion of unmalted rye and wheat adds a spicy creaminess along with a light haze. Contemporary versions are not smoked, but it’s hard to imagine that sahtis a few centuries back would not have been. As far as I know, there are no commercial versions imported here, but brewpubs and homebrewers sometimes take a whack at it. If you should run across a sahti, be warned: sahtis don’t taste nearly as strong as they really are.

Monastic Brewing

While the Vikings were raiding, the monks of northern Europe were brewing. Little is actually known about the beer they brewed, called gruit. The word gruit is related to our English words “grit” and “grist.” This may be because the secret dose of herbs and spices was disguised by mixing it with a quantity of ground malt. Three herbs are almost always mentioned in connection with gruit: bog myrtle (Myrica gale), wild rosemary (Ledum palustre), and yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Bog myrtle is a perfectly wholesome ingredient, but the other two have toxicity that makes them unfit for consumption.

There are medievalist homebrewers who brew gruit, reconstructed as best they can from very limited information. I have to say that to our modern tastes, gruit is not a particularly delicious beer. The herbs have a strong menthol or camphor quality, along with a heap of raspy tannins. I usually assume that ancient people were quite capable of making excellent beverages, although, in this case I…well…I, uh…maybe I’m missing something.

Hops and Other Adulterations

For reasons probably having more to do with product stability than flavor, hops replaced gruit by about 1400 on the continent. England was not so steeped in the gruit tradition; its ales seem to have been largely devoid of all seasonings, at least at the time they were being challenged by hopped beer. Even so, hopped beer had completely replaced unhopped ale by the end of the 17th century.

Strangely enough, hopped beer seems to have brought a whole host of other adulterations to England with it. By about 1750, the drugging of beer, especially porter, seems to have been a serious public health problem. Unscrupulous brewers jostled for market position, and despite laws to the contrary, fell to temptation to add strength or reduce cost through the use of noxious substances in their beers: Cocculus indicus (a seedpod with strong stimulant properties), Faba amara (an Asian bittering material also called “bitter bean,” which contains strychnine) and opium. Also part of the mix were chili pepper, coriander, licorice and other innocuous ingredients.

Thanks to a government crackdown on druggists, along with the lifting of the tax on hops, things were pretty much cleaned up by 1820. Many quaint spiced beers using wholesome ingredients lingered on in private country house breweries until the end of the 19th century, and many of these recipes are preserved in a usefully detailed form in books from the time.

Smoke is another taste of the past. As contemporary texts make clear, brewers ditched smoked malts as indirect coal or coke-fired kilns were put into use by the mid 17th century. Everywhere except in some of the more rustic parts of Germany, that is. The north Bavarian town of Bamberg remains proudly archaic, and brewers there produce rauchbier in a full set of styles using beechwood-smoked malt, although the flagship is kind of a “smoketoberfest.” This malt gives the beers an almost “bacony” nose. The first sip can be pretty weird, but as your palate acclimates to it, the smokiness mellows and becomes quite delicious, especially when combined with robust country foods such as sausage or ham.

The Bamberger rauchbiers are the sole smoky survivors in Germany, but once there were others. A beer called grätzer was once hugely popular in Posen, Prussia, which is now part of Poland. It is brewed from 100 percent smoked wheat malt; 7 percent of which is kilned to an amber color. Of normal or weak strength, grätzer is highly hopped, creamy and delicious. Sad to say, the last commercial survivor, brewed under the name Grodzisk, died in the 1990s. Another smoked beer, Lichtenhainer, was a weak, sour smoked barley malt beer from northern Germany. It had vanished by World War II.

A related style, steinbier, is also brewed in Bamberg, although this version was inspired by a beer that survived into the early 20th century in a rural province of Austria called Carinthia. In this ancient brewing process, white-hot rocks are lowered into the kettle to boil the wort, although rocks were originally used to heat the mash as well. The cooled stones are added to the fermenters where the caramelized wort gradually melts off. A touch of smoke from the wood fires used to heat the rocks adds another layer of flavor. The modern Bamberg interpretation, Rauchenfels, is a märzen, although the original Carinthian steinbier was quite low in gravity and had a high proportion of oats.

Weird Beer Central

Belgium is the spiritual home of strange brews. The Belgians, having been occupied by the Spanish, the Austrians, the French, the Germans and the Dutch, have an understandable desire to hold on to the core of what is Belgian. Many strange and ancient beers linger on there, although some are not as ancient as you would think. Gueuze, for example, was created around 1860.

In most countries, styles are universal, well defined, and often legislated. In Belgium, the very idea of “style” is challenged. More than half the beers brewed there make no attempt to fit any particular style, and within defined styles, very loose interpretations sometimes rule. “Trappist” is an appellation based on who brews it, but the beers range far and wide in style. The sour beer, lambic, is legally defined with some precision; strength and recipe are subject to regulations. But by and large, Belgium remains a beer artist’s paradise. Many herbs and spices besides hops are used—orange, coriander, grains of paradise, star anise, chamomile, even mustard and lichen—sometimes secretly, sometimes proclaimed right on the label.

The most gloriously archaic of Belgium’s many captivating throwbacks are the sour beers. These fall into two groups, the lambics of the Brussels region, and the red and brown beers of Flanders. There are differences, but they share a sharp acidity produced by organisms other than brewer’s yeast.

Both are living reminders of the old days when wood was the only suitable vessel for fermenting and storing beer. It is impossible to really sanitize wood. The flora that use it as a substrate make changes to the beer, adding acidity and a host of earthy, fruity aromas. In the case of lambic, the microorganisms are added by exposing the cooling wort (unfermented beer) to the night air, a modern brewer’s nightmare.

Sour—or more precisely, stale—beers were once widespread. Vestiges may still be found in some British old ales, Gale’s Prize Old Ale and Green King’s Old Suffolk Ale. “Stale” is a term used to characterize the acidity and aroma of aged beers. This staling is a slow process, and it usually takes a year or longer before flavor develops to the desired level. Most of these beers are blended, as this is the best approach in terms of both flavor and economy. Interestingly, Guinness still uses this technique to add a little something extra to its stout.

Flanders brown and red beers constitute a closely related family known as oud bruin (old brown). Such beers are of normal to slightly strong gravity, and are amber to reddish-brown in color. Traditionally, much of the color was derived from caramel syrup—kandi sugar, which has a different flavor from roasted malt. A mix of Munich and black malts is popular today, although many Belgian brewers still use caramel. These beers exhibit a profound ripe fruitiness on their own, the flavor only magnified when they are used as a base for cherry or raspberry versions.

Lambic is a more extreme—and probably more ancient— beer. The drunken peasants pouring a hazy yellow beer in Breugel’s paintings are reveling in the pleasures of lambic. It belies the notion that all archaic beers were dark and smoke-tinged. During a curious mashing procedure called a slijm mash, the enzyme-rich liquid is withdrawn from the mash and given a short boil. This creates a wort with a high proportion of unfermentable dextrins which will later become food for the lactic acid bacteria that create lambic’s characteristic sourness. Three-year-old hops, completely depleted of any bitterness, are used for their preservative power. The cheesy aroma sometimes given off by stale hops is purged with a six- to eight-hour boil.

As mentioned earlier, a spontaneous fermentation via the night air is used, although much of the microbiological fauna is resident in the vats and casks. Lambic breweries are notoriously filthy. Brewers are unsure which particular smudge is critical to their unique house flavor, and so are reluctant to touch anything. There is a fluff-up over this right now, as European Union public health bureaucrats try to deal with the decidedly unhealthful appearance of some of these places.

Lambic has numerous substyles, including: straight lambic, which may be served young (one or two years old) or aged; gueuze, which traditionally is a bottled blend of young and old, usually three years old; faro, which is lambic diluted, sweetened, and usually colored with caramel; and a variety of fruit-infused delights featuring cherries, raspberries, or more exotic fruits such as bananas or Muscat grapes.

Thick, Really Thick

One of the flat-out weirdoes of the historic beer world is the family of thick beers, or dictbiers, of northern Germany. In former times, this filled the demand for a rich, nourishing tonic made from malt. Today, the category has all but vanished, although vestiges linger in the form of kraft or karamel bier in Germany and malt-type beverages in Latin America. Syrupy malt tonics were once popular in this country as well.

A beer called Danziger jopenbier was the standard bearer for centuries and was called “the queen…of all red beers” in 1614. Brewed in what is now Gdansk, Poland, it features an astronomically high wort gravity of 50 percent sugar (compared to 12 to 14 percent for normal beers). Add to this a spontaneous fermentation lasting a full year, and it starts to get interesting. (Despite the huge potential for alcohol, the osmotic pressure from so much sugar is debilitating, and the yeast conks out after producing only 2 or 3 percent alcohol.) In addition to brewer’s yeast, a host of other microorganisms got in on the action, producing acidity and aroma. The fermenting goo was covered with a thick wrinkled blanket of mold. Contemporary observers compare jopenbier to port, with its nutty oxidized aromas. Germans used it either as a restorative tonic or as a beer seasoning syrup (as woodruff syrup is added to Berliner weissbier). It was popular in England as a fortifier for soups and gravies.

Another weighty product shared between Germany and England was Braunschweiger Mumme. This famously bitter tonic beer was described “as bitter as gall,” due to the liberal use of some very bitter herbs, most notably blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus). One famous English recipe listed 15 seasoning ingredients, including “new-laid” eggs, but no hops. Mumme was also sold in America but had disappeared by the time Prohibition hit.

On the flip side, small beers provided plentiful opportunities for strange brews. Made from the smallest possible quantities of the very cheapest ingredients, small beers were the soda pop of their day. In American colonial times, these must have been pretty bad. A recipe in George Washington’s own hand describes a thin molasses and bran concoction. Due to the scarcity of malt, all manner of substitutes were employed. A Colonial ditty proclaims: “For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,/ Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut tree chips.” Another period recipe confidently states that pea shells may be used to brew a concoction that “…so much resembles, in odor and taste, an infusion of malt as to deceive a brewer.”

One living small beer is kvass, the Russian beverage traditionally made from stale rye bread seasoned up with lemon and often a little mint. Non-alcoholic versions may sometimes be found at groceries serving an eastern European clientele, and are a refreshing change of pace from soda.

A New Beer World

Interesting beers were just a distant memory by the time the American craft beer revival hit in the 1980s. This gave American microbrewers a clean slate to reinvent beer any way they saw fit. The result was a huge profusion of bold and interesting beers, some historically based, some just the product of over-hopped imagination.

In truth, ultra-hoppy beers are nothing new. Recipes from the golden age of India pale ale show large quantities of hops for beers destined to be shipped halfway around the world. Recently there has been sort of an arms race among craft brewers. Beers at a lip-peeling 70 to 90 IBUs are almost commonplace now, but the current champion just might be Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA, at 120 IBUs (10 times that of Bud) and 21 percent alcohol!

There are other hyper-strong beers as well. In earlier times, a beer called “doble” was brewed in England by passing the same wort through two mashes of malt, effectively doubling the beer’s strength. Such beers would have been well above 10 percent alcohol.

Another method for making very strong beer is to freeze the fermented beer and remove some of the ice—a technique derived from winemaking. As far as I can determine, this is a 20th century product. Eisbier typically takes the form of bock beer (eisbock) from Germany or Switzerland. The US government considers this to be distillation and prohibits its use in this country. Large breweries mining the ice beer fad of a decade ago bypassed the problem by diluting the concentrated beer back to its original strength.

Samuel Adams’ Millennium is another ethanol heavyweight, at 20 percent alcohol. The recipe is fairly conventional, although strong; then the beer undergoes a fermentation by degrees. “We just kept feeding it maple syrup until it croaked,” said Sam Adams brewer Grant Wood. This beer is surely the heavyweight in terms of price—a jaw-dropping $200 per bottle.

Millennium picks up additional character from the use of bourbon barrels, a technique that is becoming increasingly popular with adventurous brewers across America. The American bourbon industry is a godsend, supplying the world with cheap but excellent barrels in which to age tequila, rum, Scotch, and now beer. The simple process of barrel aging adds layers of complex flavor as lignin in the wood is transformed to vanillin; a lingering trace of whisky adds a unique tang. Beers destined for barrel aging may be pale or dark, but they are usually strong. Six months to a year is the normal aging time.

And there are many other unique and surprising beer experiences to be had. Fruit beers offer a delightful area of exploration for the adventurous beer drinker. Spice and herb beers, as well as brews made from alternative grains, abound. Oyster stout was once popular in certain parts of England, and Kalamazoo’s brewing wizard, Larry Bell, recently treated homebrewers to an experimental brew incorporating Rocky Mountain oysters. Other meat products have found their way into beer over the centuries.

Aside from craft brewers, the geniuses in the marketing cubicles of industrial breweries have dreamed up a load of their own specialty beers, but most of these—like dry, low-carb and clear beer— have involved subtracting things rather than adding. Our best hope for the future, I believe, is a creative reinvention of the kaleidoscopic range of wild and wonderful things that may be found in the long and lively history of beer.