Brewers around the country are now pushing the boundaries of beer as well as the palates of beer lovers. Walk into any pub in America and you may be faced with a selection of beer brewed with oatmeal, ginger, chocolate, espresso, oysters or seaweed. Or you may be able to stumble out after a mug of 40-proof beer aged in Jack Daniel's oak barrels. "Beer drinkers are looking for more flavor in their beers, the same way people are looking for more flavorful breads, cheeses and coffees," says Steve Hindy, founder and president of the Brooklyn Brewery. "Plus, they're thirsty for knowledge about the beers they're drinking." Such "extreme beer" -- part of a growing phenomenon at the edges of America's 25-year-old craft-brewing movement -- has transformed the commodity into a premium product based on spiked alcohol content, higher hoppiness, or unusual flavorings. Such creativity is sparking a renewed interest in drinkers who are growing tired of traditional brews such as Miller and Budweiser. "The standard American beer is the beer equivalent of supermarket white bread -- basically a very bland, empty facsimile of the real thing," says brewmaster Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery. Although the term extreme beer is novel, the idea has been around for many years. Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Company coined it back in 1994 to describe his Samuel Adams Triple Bock, which was then the strongest beer on the market at 17.5% alcohol vs. between 4% and 6% for typical brews. Since then, the company has held the record for the strongest beers in the world -- first with Samuel Adams Triple Bock (17.5%), followed by Samuel Adams Millennium Ale (21%), Samuel Adams Utopias MMII (24%) and most recently Samuel Adams Utopias (25%).
Today's extreme beers focus more on the brewer's use of additional flavor profiles than on high alcohol content. Collectively, the newcomers have put at least 10,000 beers on the market. Some of the more popular and mainstream new flavors include Sam Adams Chocolate Bock, made with Scharffen Berger chocolate; Abita Purple Haze, a wheat beer made with raspberry puree; Berkshire Brew Company Coffeehouse Porter, brewed with an organic coffee extract; and Hoptown Oatmeal Breakfast, brewed with oatmeal.
Extreme beer is also commanding extreme prices. Industry experts say that consistent with the growing trend among spirits and wine drinkers, beer consumers are also going upscale, thus opting for higher-priced libations. Indeed, collectors have paid up to $300 for unique bottles. Vermont's Magic Hat Brewery, Washington State's Fish Brewing Co. and several other U.S. brewers now make beers retailing for than $20 a bottle. The breweries say they sell out instantly. How has the movement impacted a rather stagnant U.S. beer industry? In general, while beer constituted 54% of alcohol sales in 2005, sales stalled compared to the previous year, according to AC Nielsen research. Meanwhile, sales of craft beers like Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head rose 9% in 2005, outpacing the growth of wine, spirits and even imported beer, which grew 7.2% over the same period, according to Beer Marketer's Insights. Specialty beers grew 7.1% in the first half of 2005. Industry experts cited better distribution networks and more sophisticated consumer tastes as reasons behind the sales surge. "The extreme-beer revolution is a great way for people who would otherwise be turned off by beer to begin seeing it as the art it is," says Jeff Wharton, co-founder of HopHeadHaven.com, an online beer forum. "Extreme beer gives people a chance to get into it and feel as though they are really part of something and knowledgeable about a subject." So inspired are some beer geeks --"a title that these individuals are quite proud of," according to Brock Wagner, president and CEO of Saint Arnold Brewing Company -- that many have taken their enthusiasm to the next level by becoming home brewers. After all, Sam Calagione, founder and president of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., was an underemployed college graduate waiting tables in New York in 1992 when he whipped up his first batch of beer, a standard English pale ale flavored with frozen cherries.
Likewise, many inspired individuals have concocted their own extreme flavors. "I added smoked garlic to a homebrew and tried my first bottle last night -- which was primarily garlicky with a hint of smokiness and a hint of the sweetness of beer," says Erik Myers, 29, of Durham, N.C. "It went really well with pizza!" Garlic beer? Has extreme beer strayed too far from, well, beer? "Given the right conditions, beer could be the new wine in some ways," says Wharton. "I could at least see a Sideways-esque movie about beer being made in a couple years and doing well."
Going to Extremes
Interested in trying extreme beers? Consider the following, which (if you're lucky) may be available at your local liquor store or via Web sites such as Vintagecellar.com , Beer Geek and Bevmo.com :
Dogfish Head's Midas Touch, concocted from a 2,700-year-old-beer recipe reverse-engineered by a University of Pennsylvania molecular archaeologist who took scrapings from a gold-filled tomb in Turkey, which some think was the burial place of King Midas. The ingredients include honey, white Muscat grapes and saffron.
Watch City Brewing Company, Waltham Frostbite Winter Ale, spiced with Scharffen Berger chocolate, orange zest, cranberries, and chamomile.
Thomas Hooker Ales & Lagers, Hartford, Conn., Old Marley, a rich, hoppy barley wine-style ale aged in bourbon casks.
Sam Adams Chocolate Bock, made with Scharffen Berger chocolate to yield a creamy brew infused with the aroma of cocoa beans.
Abita Purple Haze, a wheat beer made with raspberry puree that pairs deliciously with spicy foods like chili.
Berkshire Brew Company Coffeehouse Porter, a dark ale brewed with an organic coffee extract.
Hoptown Oatmeal Breakfast, one sip of this and you'll know why beer used to be called "liquid bread."
Portland Honey Beer, a smidge of honey adds a sweet accent to this brew.