Unusual ways extreme craft brewers are pushing beer boundaries

We’ve got extreme sports, extreme makeovers, and now: extreme beer.

A six pack for over 90 bucks? A beer you can only buy on one day a year? A stout with a dizzying 50 percent alcohol? These examples -- and many more -- are just a few of the mug-tipping exploits of extreme-beer brewing, the latest craze to hit the craft beer market.

“The guy who really coined the term was Sam Calagione, the owner and brewer of Delaware-based craft brewery, Dogfish Head,” explains Mark Zappasodi, a hop farmer in Merrimac, Mass. “He started taking huge risks with beers, beyond what people were doing on the small scale. He was doing it on a large scale on the East Coast. He was one of the first here to stick his head out and do something different than others had been doing,”

So what makes a beer extreme? Simply put, it’s a brew that pushes brewing beyond the normal parameters of your average ale. “Winemakers might make 40 wines across 40 vintages – that sucks! Your entire life you might have only 40 chances to get it right,” reasons Dave Flaherty, beer director for Hearth restaurant in New York City. “But brewers can be more like chefs and brew every day; they can make 365 different beers in a year. And one thing that’s happening: Brewing is looking to be more progressive.”

But lately, craft beers have been cranking up the alcohol-by-volume (ABV) percentages --and changing the way beer is being drunk.  Beers that are higher gravity (e.g., higher in alcohol) than your typical 3 to 5 percent in your average six pack, are encouraged not to be chugged, but sipped slowly more akin to a brandy than a Bud. Possibly the most extreme example has popped up in a friendly brewing competition between Scotland and Germany.

BrewDog in Scotland wanted to make highest ABV in the world, and this guy in Germany did, too. They started a back and forth battle to top the other and had a lot of fun with it, challenging and jesting and calling each other sissies,” laughs Flaherty.

First, Brewdog produced 'Tactical Nuclear Penguin' at 32 percent ABV. That was topped by German-based Schorsbrau, which released Schorschbock at 40 percent. Brewdog retaliated with 'Sink the Bismarck' at 41 percent, and then made 'The End of History,' a blond Belgian ale at 55 percent packaged in a case made from stuffed animals, including stoats and squirrels. This fall, another Scottish brewery, Brewmeister, jumped into the game with its Armageddon, with an ABV of 65 percent.

“But what they really did was create an extreme brewing technique. They make a beer and cool it down until the water in it freezes and they keep doing it until they are essentially distilling the beer down to something very concentrated and getting a higher and higher ABV.”

While this might all seem like sport, there’s something else to it, says Zapposodi, who co-created his own extreme-beer example in the brewing world: Brewing as Art, a working 10 gallon mobile brewing sculpture that he created with artist/welder Scott van Campen. “When you have a beer that’s made with a higher gravity [e.g., higher alcohol], it immediately has more complexity and more depth than a normal sessionable beer. Higher gravity beers are made less for mass consumption and more for appreciating -- they make you slow down the beer-drinking process.”

Other examples of taking beer to where no suds have ever gone before? Beers that age. Beers brewed with an extreme amount of hops. Beers that ferment naturally with wild yeasts. Beers that are barrel-fermented and left to linger in whiskey, port, or even wine barrels and then blended. Brewers using the addition of everything from coffee to oddball herbs to tease out new flavors, like Austin Beerworks, who teamed up with their Texan counterpart, Cuvee Coffee Roasters to make last year’s Sputnik, a Russian imperial oatmeal coffee stout at nearly 9 percent ABV (the two craft companies are working on another beer and coffee project this year, too).  Another example is Baltimore’s Stillwater Artisanal Ales’ 'Midgal Bavel,' a saison-style ale brewed with Szechuan peppercorns and myrrh.

“It’s spreading in all directions, but what’s driving it is experimentation and playfulness,” reasons Flaherty of the thrust behind the extreme beer movement. “We’ve been under shackles in that our country has been long limited to one style – American pilsner, as we all know with brands like Bud, Coors, and Miller. But now we’ve woken up to, whoa! So much more out there! It’s so great.”