Every year during the World Beer Championships, we dedicate one session to specialty styles of beer that includes fruit-flavored beers, beers made with unusual fermentables, barrel-aged beers and some Belgian-specialty styles like Lambic. When you open the door for brewers to send in their most unusual creations, you can be sure that you will receive things that you’ve never seen before, both good and bad. However, what’s interesting to me is that the very concept of an “unusual” beer is almost passé in the era of “beer imperialism” and “extreme beers.”

As the pendulum of taste swings on and radicalism verges on traditionalism, people are now more open to experimentation. There is still a good deal of nonsense and one-upmanship going on in the brewing world, but for the most part, new styles that have merit are becoming refined, maturing and becoming the norm. Take the very notion of a barrel-aged beer: Storing beer in neutral wood was commonplace in preindustrial brewing, became obsolete with modern metals, and now storing craft beers in non-neutral wood is becoming so common that we will be taking the category out of our specialty tastings next year and incorporating those barrel-aged products into their respective barleywine, strong ale, stout or porter tastings.

The top beers from this year’s tasting, despite all of their flavor divergence, had a few things in common. Namely, depth, balance and purity of flavor; things that you would expect to separate the wheat from the chaff in any style of beer. Perhaps the real defining term and lightning rod for specialty beers is creativity. The Mona Lisa was a very creative endeavor, but so was Frankenstein’s monster…

Highlights of this year’s specialty tasting included two from Brouwerij Lindemans of Belgium: the Cuvée René Oude Gueuze Lambic (94 points) and the Pêche Lambic (92 points). Both great examples of their type: The Gueuze is dry, vinous and food affined, while the fruit-flavored Pêche is more easygoing, yet complex and pure. Also showing up on the fruit-flavored frontier isSamuel Smith’s Old Brewery Raspberry Ale (91 points) has instantly appealing sweet berry fruit, but also the complex, woodsy and brambly dimension of fresh raspberries that is very difficult to capture and balance in any beverage. And speaking of wood and ‘steins, it was great to find a galvanization of the two in the Woody Stein (92 points), from the mad brewing scientists at the Grumpy Troll Brewery who successfully aged a Rauchbier in a barrel. They created a dark, smoky, gentle giant of a beer that would be stunning with artisanal sausages, smoked Gouda or Morbier cheese.