Vermont: Odd Notion Spring ’09, Magic Hat, SoBurl

Extreme. Experimental. Weird. Weirdo. That is my new sliding scale to express a facet of the craft brewing world, like the crap-snob continuum. Granted it is only half the scale, missing the BFW¹ – X3M portion to the left. But it is a good scale and Odd Notion Spring 2009 inspired it.

One problem with “extreme” is that right now it’s the centre of the pack. This beer points out that there is plenty of room beyond extreme, including places you will likely not visit again. Because this beer and those like it are weird. Last spring’s peaty brown ale called Odd Notion helped generate a lot of heat over diacetyl that I don’t expect to be repeated with this one’s poppy seed and agave flavours. Will not one defend the honour of the agave? Who stands for the poppy? None.

It pours an attractive orange amber with a nice sheeting white head. But the smell is like a fresh and well-crafted beer trying to replicate the smell of an old, off skunky one. In the mouth, it’s a bit like fancy hotel soap, the stuff you put on a bad sunburn made from cactus as well as that hard astringent poppiness. There is other stuff in there like a little orange marmalade and maybe a bilious note. It is hard to explain but for all that, this is not entirely off-putting given that (1) it is generated in large part by the poppy seed, a taste I took to when I worked in Poland and (2) I have been sunburned a lot and support the post sun burn lotion industry. But it is weird. Yet not quite a weirdo. Good BAer support.

Extreme… X-Treme… X-Tre-m… XTRM… ?

Hub-bub. That is what is going on. There is hub-bub afoot these days about “extreme” beer. Here is what I know, though things may be changing on the fly, minute-by-minute as it were:

The Independent in England goes all yikes over BrewDog and other new strong beers even categorizing their article under the “health news” beat. Best ‘fraidy cat panicky quote: “alcohol campaigners have complained that drinkers may be unaware of the strength of the new products, a single 330ml bottle of which is enough to make an adult exceed their daily recommended alcohol intake.” Deary deary. Let’s hope know one in England under 40 has heard of gin either because I understand that, too, can get you tipsy.

Then Pete Brown goes yikey-doodles in response laying it on thick and hearty in return, due to the article’s reliance on his own work to create the “health news” in question. Best Pete-flips-lid quote: “[the article] creates a master class in hypocrisy that would be funny if it wasn’t for the fact that it might damage brewers I care about who spoke to me in good faith.” Look, I know as a good North American I am supposed to think the residents of any EU nation are nothing but big daft socialist softies but I still find it hard to believe that anyone who might actually have chosen to try an extreme beer would be deterred by this “health news” – and suspect, for that matter, that many more would take it as an opportunity to explore the big brews mentioned.

And, then, Stan asks the musical question – with a lot less of the yikes – as to what “extreme beer” actually means to you… and to me. Specifically, he asks:

What I’d like to know is if the term “extreme beer” means something specific to real live beer drinkers. I’ve never heard a customer at a bar say, “I’d like an extreme beer, please.

 

Good point but since the advent of extreme beers I have also never heard a customer say “I’d like to try a few more of all these wonderful new experimental session beers you offer, good publican.” That’s because extreme beer has had this Vulcan Mind Meld on so many craft brewers that all their explorations are based on turning to the volume to eleven, too often to focus on quantity of taste as opposed to quality. There is no room for modest balance (or modest price for that matter) where all on offer is extreme.

What’s it all mean? My comment at Stan’s begins extreme beer means nothing to me and that is as honest as I can put it. Mainly because it is really nothing new. Experimentation with very strong beers like Samichlaus or Thomas Hardy Ale well predate the X-TR-M label. Experimentation with odd and intense ingredients has been going on in home brewing well before Papazian’s first book. While you are at it, just consider the simple fact of Belgian brewing history or even only the sour branch of it. But besides all that – aside from the claims to new and exciting – for too much of the time extreme beers simply disappoint because they taste like you’ve just sprayed aerosol furniture polish in your mouth or because you really didn’t want to revisit the undergrad skull splitting headache the next day. Yet it has been latched upon as a means to market, to increase price and perhaps forgo value in a way that ignores that the adjective “extreme” has become a bit of a joke in other areas of pop culture.

X3M09? One year later and I still feel now as I did a year ago – the push for more ends up feeling like nothing so much as branding and hyping and inflating of a particularly tedious sort. A little like those ads aimed at “off-centered” people, I really look forward to the day that we look back at “extreme” brewing as we do the song stylings of Rick Astley. Must I quote the Scottish play? Has it come to that? Extreme beers are…

…but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

None of which speaks to the quality of any particular beer. Some are wonderful and lovely. But for all the US strong beers I have enjoyed I have disliked more… and more than once felt a bit ripped off. And I suspect most feel this way – though both the panicky health nuts on one hand and the craft marketing hype machine on the other might not like to admit it. The trend is not for death by ale, is not for beer that could sterilize surgical instruments while tasting like steak sauce or shoe leather, is not for the 25 dollar bottle that captures the essence of a thousand hop blossoms. And, because of that, it does a disservice to the bulk of more moderate craft beers and the vast majority of beer sales and buyers.

Were there that North American beer consumer lobbying group, I would expect that a backlash against the focus on extreme might have started some time ago. But we have none so it’s not begun. Maybe it should.

Big Hop Bombs: Extreme Beer And Your Personal Limits

It’s always a big day when Eric Asimov writes a beer article for The New York Times. Being Canadian, a culture with a deep seam of neediness running through it¹, you glow when you feel like you are noticed just as when the beer nerd’s nerdiness gets the MSM treatment. But in today’s article all was not nice – there was a bit of push back from him and the panel against the extreme hoppiness in beer that have marked a certain sector of the nerd herd:

“The hoppiest beer?” Garrett asked. “It’s a fairly idiotic pursuit, like a chef saying, ‘This is the saltiest dish.’ Anyone can toss hops in a pot, but can you make it beautiful?” Phil likened the appeal of these beers to the macho allure of hot sauces, which almost dare enthusiasts to try the hottest ones.

I like the comparison to saltiness and it reminds me of the idea that the search for the strongest beer, an earlier extreme beer obsession, is as dumb as hunting for the strongest Scotch. One thing I noticed was that the beers chosen that I was familiar with were not the most hop-ridden out there by any stretch. Dogfish Head 90 looks up to their 120, I found Simcoe Double IPA balanced (something I could not say for the brewer’s bigger Eleven) and only Un*earthly broke the now standard 10% alcohol limit that now sort of divides extreme between really strong from insanely strong.

Stan notes at his blog that some in craft beer are not so prudent or concerned with beauty when he shares this update from Avery about their 2008 version of New World Porter:

While some observers may posit that the hop shortage is a good thing, forcing brewers to become more efficient and prudent with their use of hops, we at Avery tend to disagree. Hops are the heart and soul of our beers and we refuse to compromise our recipes or our flavors. Even more, as if to scoff in the face of common sense and basic brewery economics, we decided to increase the hops that were added to this years New World Porter. The 2008 batch is truly a black IPA.

Something tells me that this could well just not be a beer for me. After a few of years of these big brews I am starting to think that I have a natural limit of around 8.5 percent beyond which beers start to have a diminishing return unless there is something else to particularly attract my attention. I also have a limit as to hop acid and that is defined by the need not worry about the state of my tooth enamel…unless, say, there are those arugula hops from Ithaca in there. This is no different than my sour beer studies leading to my limit for acidity being far closer to Kriek De Ranke than to Bruocsella 1990.

Is it wrong to say that you can’t go all the way or at least as far as others go? Old farts call this a sign of maturing. The immature call it the sign of an old fart. To my mind, Asimov’s NYT article leaned towards old fart territory without explicitly saying so. The other end of the pendulum’s swing can be found at this busy forum filled with unimpressed lame-‘cusatory BAers. It’s like everyone is unhappy with everyone else and, frankly, Pete Brown is pretty much fed up with the lot of you.

Yet these things only go so far. Can someone else tell us what to think, to taste? There is nothing more odd than sitting over the same bottle with experienced fans and hearing differing comments, different experiences of pleasure. In many ways, beer has an audience of one and that is you. So what have you learned about yourself? Which path would a brewer have you walk but you won’t follow? Is it and overly Burtoned mineralized brew? Too still, too hopped, too smoked or just too much goddamn yeasty floaties? Or is it the milds, lights and other table beers that bore you or, worse, wear you out from trips to the can? Remember this: we each have to make our old way in this wicked world and there is no better example of that than the love of beer. What thing about beer have you learned not to repeat?

¹Think Sally Field saying “They like me! They really like me!!” and add snow.

Big Hop Bombs: Simcoe Double IPA, Weyerbacher Brewing, PA

Rich fine tan creamy head over deep caramel ale. The smell is orange marmalade with a sort of distinctly garlic-y hot heat. In the mouth eucalyptus and mint hops with orange peel and rich creamy malt closing into heat. A really fine double IPA, balanced – at 9% not overwhelming. A kinder gentler sibling of the same brewer’s Eleven. A fine thing in the shade on the hot day with a stinky blue cheese and a good loaf as children draw with chalk around you.

Planned by the brewer to be a softer gentler version of a big hop bomb. 100% BAer approval noted and well worthy.

Big Hop Bombs: 120 Minutes IPA, Dogfish Head, Del., USA

So I give the tickets away, come hope to find them, end up having have to dig through the recycling to find the envelope and there it is – and it is not for the Jays against the Tigers…it’s for the Thursday night game next week against the Sox. I am so there.

Good reason to break out the good stuff. And not just because the last “Week of…” post never got finished with the review of this particular example of the good stuff. One reader wrote about how those long posts were messing up his RSS reader because I wrote them over time. Well, I get the point. “The Week of Eleven…” anythings is too much so we will evolve that little theme next time. See. I can both create and evolve.

On with the beer. This one pours a clear orange butterscotch with an orange cream head that resolves to a thin rim. Booze and orange marmalade on the nose, there is plenty more of each in the mouth. But there is other stuff. Lemon curd creaminess and decent graininess for a big beer with a relatively dry setting. Not overly hot from either the alcohol or the hopping – amazing considering the 120 IBU and whopping 20% booze. This one 12 oz bottle equals five standard Canadian light beers. The hops are both herbal minty green and somewhat tea astringent. Oloroso sherry. 92% of BAers get it.

Oops – it is heating up now.

Big Hop Bombs: The Week of Eleven Big US India Pale Ales

Two of my favorite eleven a side squads – IPA and AFC
 

Springtime is here. For me this is the perfect season for those American green, weedy IPAs that taste like liquid salad with gasoline for dressing. Autumn cries out for stouts and porters while winter needs a slow-sipped tripel or the malt bombs, whether doppelbocks or barley wines. In summer, the lighter beers reign: nothing bigger than a pale ale is right and better still a hefe-weizen, a Belgian white or even light lager. Except perhaps for an earthy dubbel, spring is about the stuff that smells and tastes like you it just started popping up in the garden’s herb patch.

In this batch we go from mere strong US take on the IPA to the double, the triple, the imperial on to the 120 minute, all selected from eight different US states. I expect that I will find once again that most if not all of these are bigger than anything you would expect to see out of the UK or Canada. I have only had a couple of these before and what I am really hoping to find is a new take on the hop – something more than mere excess that makes the beer stand out.

Snapperhead IPA: The new third offering from central New York’s Butternuts Beer and Ale, makers of Porkslap and Heinnieweisse. Snapperhead’s yellow can pours out a really attractive orange amber ale that holds up a fine white head that resolves to active foam and rim. A perfectly fine IPA with plenty of roughish but green weedy hop in the middle and even a bit of a burn as it goes down. Chewy malt sits in the second chair with plenty of light raisin, apple and apricot to take notice of. All twelve BAers that review it approve. Selling for $5.99 a six like the others in the range, this beer is one of the best values in craft beer going.

Hop Ottin’ India Pale Ale: from California’s Anderson Valley, their second appearance this week. Seville marmalade nose, bitter and cirtus. Another orange-amber ale with a little more depth of colour. The head is thick, rich, orangy cream and leaves a lot of lacing. An interesting comparison as this beer’s hop frames your mouth – the quality of the sensation and where the hop hits you, at least to me, is one of the particular qualities of these IPAs. Only one percent BAer disapproval, with complaints of too much bittering hops. Sure, that’s there but there is plenty more and I suspect, at 7% this will end up being in the middle ground of this crew. I like it but I like arugula, too. Think white pepper with baby spinach in a lighter cream sauce. A fine measure of heat in the end like one of those hot cinnamon candies without the sweet.

Sierra Nevada IPA 2007: honey-amber ale under off-white foam and rim. No pronounced aroma. Grapefruit hop with sweet raisin in the malt initially makes for more of a ruby red than white grapefruit juicy effect. Then the hops move more to a twiggy thing and the moment is lost. Some cream behind that hop acid and twig. Mineral finish. Quite good and balanced and no pronounced heat at 6.8% but not really complex enough up against this sort of field. Yet only 5% of BAers turn up their nose as they turn down their thumbs.

Southampton IPA: a distinct lemon herb aroma. Golden amber ale under a very fine white cream head. A finer, softer effect than the Sierra Nevada. The hops are citrus but are more of a lemon kumquat thing than grapefruit. Some honey in the malt, too. Very likable and, again, a very well hidden 6.5%. A civilized touch of relative restraint within the US style. The brewer claims five hops were involved and I have no reason to doubt it. All the BAers love it.

Hi.P.A: from Vermont’s Magic Hat. Quite a strong floral aroma (sweet freesia and rose) from this smoked amber ale under a big and lasting white rocky head. Softer than most IPAs and also a bit of a drier take on the style. Some graininess. Recessed fruit, a bit of peach and a bit of date with grapefruit, lemon and, more in the end, a good measure of twiggy bittering hopping. Quite still without the finishing burn the bigger acidic bombs leave. A bit of the 6.8% heat sticks out. Reasonable in all respects and likely a good steak and/or ribs brew from this level of bittering astringency. The BAers give it all but 2% approval but with a lower average.

Eleven: from Weyerbacher of Pennsylvania. Called a Triple IPA, I split with with a couple of pals during Friday evening beer club (you have started a beer club, too, right?). The beer poured a massive and sustained rocky tan head over butterscotch coloured ale. Big body, orange marmalade and booze which is what you would expect for a beer of this strength – 11.7%!. Loads of green herbal hops but they buckle up against the wall of creamy sweet malt that fills the core of this brew. The yeast provides a slightly cheesy or yogurty note. Heat in the end but not as much as there might be. A surprisingly high ten percent of BAers say no mainly citing lack of balance and intense boozy heat.

Maharaja: an Imperial India Pale Ale made by Avery of Colorado. Again, split with pals – this one was preferred to the Eleven above. Maybe it is the almost 2% lighter profile at a mere 9.9%. Another heavy orange-amber ale under a huge rocky tan head that resolves to a sheeting tan rim and foam. Orange marmalade creamy smooth middle to a moderately hot end with apple and white pepper with an odd lightness in the second half. Some mineral water and even salt in the finish from Avery’s hard water. Only 2% of BAers do not like this one.

Big A IPA 2006: this is simply my favorite double IPA. The previous version was my best beer of 2005. What it does that no other massive IPAs I have tried does is it appears to use so, melting like masses of rolled barley as a cooling creamy effect that is as bit as both the hop and the booze – here are the brewers notes and there is no rolled barley . Compared to the notes from 2005, this one is lighter in colour at just a straw with a thick sheeting fine foam head. Whacks of cream, whacks of white pepper, whacks of bitter garden greens in the hops and at 9.2% whacks of that, too. One thin percent of BAers do not like this one. Madness. Rice pudding meets gasoline.

India Pale Ale: by Arcadia Ales, a new brewer for me from Battle Creek Michigan. The beer pours a cloudy red amber under a rich white rocky, lace-leaving head. The nose is somewhat malty, somewhat lemon zest hops. One BAer calls it “pine and grapefruit with an offputting dishsoap smell.” In the mouth the lemon zest explodes with an accompanying second more astringent dry hop characteristic and a definite soapy feel…and a hint of Old Spice in the finish. Oh my. Read the BAer reviews as I introduce this fluid into the city waste water system – oddly only 7% give the thumbs down.

Flower Power IPA: from the Ithaca Beer Co. Reviewed before, I always find this one fits the bill. An orange-straw brew under a white frothy rim with plenty of lace. On the nose, sweet and orange and a bit of white pepper. In the mouth there is plenty of peppery green and acidic hop combining with apple and pear malt. The water soft, the yeast slightly creamy. A really fine example of the upstate IPA. Even the 2% of BAers who do not love it acknowledge the quality.

120 Minute IPA: Please click here.

OK, some of these were experiments gone wrong and others were really quite wonderful. I hope I never have to use the words “old” and “spice” like that again.

Big Hop Bombs: Un*Earthly, Southern Tier, New York, USA

Can these guys make a bad beer?

This ale pours a light tan foam and rim over bright cherry-amber ale. You pick up heat from the first whiff. Check the bottle. Yikes 11%. I thought it was a Double IPA – but no…it’s an Imperial IPA. Good thing the Mets and Braves went to 14 innings. Another sniff adds rich greens and stone-fruit malt. Sip. Spicy hops over big body heat. It is creamy yet hot saucey. And a pile of weedy greens. And, yes, its 11%. Wow. Lots of graininess and fruit-juiciness even with the hot hot heat.

A very legitimate challanger to Double Bastard from Stone. Too bad I didn’t remember to note the price when I got it at Galeville a couple of weeks ago.