I couldn’t put my finger on what I was drinking. Carton Brewing’s Cosmonaut was labeled a Russian imperial stout and had many of the standard flavors of the style, but something was a little...odd.
It was roasty and chocolate-y as expected, but also had some syrupy sweet vanilla and strawberry notes that confused me. I asked Augie Carton, co-founder of the New Jersey brewery, what was in his beer. He smiled mischievously, before responding: “Astronaut ice cream.”
If you wanted a peek at the possible future of craft beer, you might have seen it at the 12th annual Extreme Beer Fest (EBF). Unleashed on Boston every year as winter’s end draws near, 2015’s two-day, three-session event was held at the Seaport World Trade Center.
Over 70 of America's most avant-garde breweries had been invited by hosts BeerAdvocate to bring their, I’ll be blunt, craziest shit, creating an X-Games of beer-soaked one-upmanship.
But what exactly is “extreme” beer nowadays?
“Five years ago, ‘extreme’ meant more hops, more alcohol, or simply barrel-aging something,” notes Carton. “Now extreme is about new processes and techniques.”
Indeed, Carton’s eye-popping orange booth was exhibiting that with three other beers being poured alongside Cosmonaut.
There was Irish Coffee (a coffee cream ale with fresh peppermint finished on Irish whiskey wood, meant to mimic the crème de menthe-laden after-dinner drink), Gilded Lily (an opulent Belgian tripel made with white truffles), and S.S. Kentucky (a double IPA with smoked pineapple).
Each were truly one-of-a-kind, with flavor profiles unlike anything I’d tasted in the beer world, all more redolent of ambitious restaurant cuisine.
“A beer that pushes the boundaries of brewing” is how EBF’s media guide describes what they expect breweries to bring to this sold-out festival—$60 tickets were quickly snatched up online last September—and indeed I did not see a single “boring” pale ale, hefeweizen, or pilsner.
Instead, the 250 beers available were ones brewed with oddball ingredients, aged in off-beat barrels, or just stylistically strange. These weren’t beers fit for mainstream crowds, but, rather, ones meant to challenge beer connoisseurs’ palates.
This is a significant point as extreme beer is what put American beer on the map, making this country’s brewers the bellwethers for the rest of the brewing world.
It’s why a Danish guy like Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø decided to pack up his Evil Twin Brewing in 2012 and move operations to Brooklyn (“Why not live where it’s actually happening?”).
Though Evil Twin wasn’t in attendance at this year’s festival, it easily could have been, with extreme beers like Imperial Donut Break—yes, made with actual doughnuts—standard entries in their massive portfolio.
If there’s a progenitor of this extreme beer phenomenon—and a person who literally wrote the book on the subject—it’s Sam Calagione.
A decade ago, when your average Joe didn’t know what IPA actually stood for, Calagione’s brewery Dogfish Head was releasing beer after beer that broke traditional molds, like the uber-boozy, uber-hoppy 120 Minute IPA, an 18% ABV ale first released in 2003.
“When initial batches of many of our more exotic beers came out we took a lot of shit for them and were considered weirdos and even heretics,” said Calagione. “People said we were being disrespectful to ‘traditional’ brewing.”
By ‘traditional’ he refers to the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian beer purity law of 1487 which mandated beer could only be made with water, hops, and barley (yeast had yet to be identified by Louis Pasteur).
As Calagione notes, “At Dogfish Head we believed the Reinheitsgebot was nothing more than a form of art censorship and wanted to overcome that.”
His now 20-year-old Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, brewery is the lead sponsor of EBF and had one of the festival’s longest lines.
Beer geeks were thrilled at the opportunity to meet the charismatic Calagione—an A-list celebrity within the industry—and sample Dogfish Head’s current “extremities” like Choc Lobster, a robust porter brewed with cocoa nibs, basil tea, and, yes...live Maine lobsters.
But it wasn’t just craft brewing giants like Dogfish Head creating Disneyland-like lines.
Some of the most anticipated beers were from smaller breweries you might not know. For me, the second the event doors opened, I made a beeline to the back corner of the convention hall where I knew I’d find Treehouse Brewing’s booth.
The Massachusetts brewery has been around just three short years but has already made a splash in New England with IPAs like Julius and Green.
For EBF they’d brought Good Morning, a breakfast stout brewed using dark amber maple syrup. Though I had to wait in line a good 10 minutes to score a mere two-ounce pour, it was well worth it, the decadent, chocolate mousse-like beer a modern marvel of brewing.
The brewery with maybe the longest line snaking throughout the venue was Florida’s Funky Buddha Brewery. If Carton’s foodie beers ventured more toward haute cuisine, Funky Buddha’s were reminiscent of down-home treats we’ve all enjoyed.
My favorite offering of theirs was Key Lime Pie, a tart Berliner weisse brewed with white wheat malt and fermented with the bacteria lactobacillus, which somehow made the beer taste exactly like its namesake dessert.
Co-owner and head brewer Ryan Sentz notes, “As a beer drinker it always bothered me when someone said a beer was going to taste like something and then you had to really search for it. If we say we are brewing a ham sandwich beer, we want you taste the ham, rye, and mustard!” (He adds, “No, we aren't brewing a ham sandwich beer.”)
Sentz began attending EBF as a beer fan nine years ago. Back then he naturally gravitated to culinary breweries like Dogfish Head. Thus, when he was finally ready to open his own brewpub in 2010, he felt inclined to make his “regular” beers similarly extreme.
Sentz may not have unveiled a ham sandwich beer at EBF, but he did have No Crusts, a peanut-packed ale that, again, tasted exactly like a classic PB&J sandwich—Sentz: “We don't skimp on ingredients!”—and the cinnamon, vanilla, and maple syrup-infused French Toast Double Brown Ale that tasted like, well, you know.
“You aren’t going to shock a beer geek at this point,” added Sentz, but that wasn’t completely true in this beer geek’s case--especially when I stumbled upon Jackie O’s Cucumber Ginger Berliner Weisse, which tasted like a sour pickle fresh from the a supermarket’s serve-yourself barrels.
Yet, odd as it sounds, the Athens, Ohio, beer really worked for me, managing to be tart, yet refreshingly drinkable. I was likewise blown away with the offerings from Rare Barrel, an all-sour brewery from Berkeley, thinking their lavender and elderberry oak-aged beer Apropos of Nothing was one of the festival’s major hits.
Of course, extreme doesn’t necessarily mean good, and there were plenty of beers I didn’t find particularly enjoyable. I won’t name names, but the problem with these duds certainly wasn’t ambition, but rather an attempt at extremity without any focus.
Calagione warns, “It doesn't work to just go through a cookbook and try to find an herb or spice nobody has put in a commercial beer yet and then stick it in. The art of brewing lies in making beers that are intentional, provocative, and well-differentiated but also brewed to the highest level of quality.”
Carton agrees with the sentiment, but notes that it’s up to beer drinkers to make these extreme beers more widespread successes. “Truly open-minded beer people are still a small percentage of the general beer-drinking population. Luckily, EBF is probably the best place to find them. And to find beers with flavors that seek out dialogue.”
Cigar City Brewing’s El Murciélago, a double cream ale with cumin and lime, made me for the first time see the potential in aging beer in tequila barrels. Or, Jack’s Abby’s 15% Lager Ness Monster, revealing the absolute heights of both flavor and ABV that lagers can reach.
OK, so some of these beers were playful gimmicks—Otter Creek’s Rainbow Licker, a pale ale aged on Starburst candies—and, yes, craft beer has definitely become an unyielding arms race of oddness to a certain extent.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t all have a point: Like runway fashion figuring out what might eventually work for normal folks, the strangest of extreme beers are able to push the envelope and move the brewing bar.
Sentz sums it up nicely, “As craft beer grows and grows, I think the idea of these beers being extreme will go away. Ten years ago a double IPA was extreme. ‘Extreme’ in 10 years will probably mean drinking beers out of human skulls or having someone punch you in the stomach while you chug a barleywine.”
Or perhaps just punch you in the skull because, suffice to say, the Sunday morning after EBF I was extremely hungover.