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.

My Seemingly Obligatory Thoughts On St. Patrick

Have a thought for Saint Patrick, the actual guy. Taken as a teen age slave from his native Wales to Ireland, familiar with all the details of Druidism from whose bondage he was destined to liberate the Irish race, able to paralyze those who would deter him from his mission and all we can do is get pounded in his name. Isn’t the 17th of March now a bit of a sad legacy given, at least in certain places, the celebrations reach a pitch which would make a Druid blush?

Craft beer fans seem to object to the St. Patrick’s Day as a general thing. Andy Crouch is turned off by the exploitation by big American breweries, the push by Guinness for a holiday is seen for the commercial exploitation that it is and slightly excruciating efforts are made to find another angle on green beer.

But not being Irish, not being American, no longer being a regular Guinness drinker and not being a person to go out and get sloshed in bars like some cheese-eating frat boy…what’s the harm? Isn’t the cheeriness associated with the day and the doings somewhat compelling? Aren’t there peoples from Patagonia to the Republic of Palau who ache with jealousy at the good PR the Irish get out of it? And, given all the free press about beer this time of year – if we are like Patrick to be evangelists ourselves – isn’t this a great opportunity for a teaching moment? Isn’t this, frankly, the sort of beer holiday that craft brewers would dream of making up if it didn’t already exist?

Saint Patrick can be associated with bringing the gift of civilization, of the pluck to take on an impossible task, of the enduring drive to achieve passion’s dream. These all seem great values you can associate with hard working craft brewers. Take back and take on the day, I say.

Wisconsin: Bitter Woman IPA, Tyranena Brewing, Lake Mills

My mid-west beer territory has expanded care of Stan’s visit the other day. The New Glarus Spotted Cow of the other night was my first WI brew (of the non-cricketing WI that is) and here’s the next one – Bitter Woman IPA from Lake Mills’ Tyranena. The brewer tells us that the bitter woman in question was one Aunt Cal, an old sweetheart of the famous American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and early local resident. See – a literary connection overcomes political correctness every time. And, well, I suppose that’s better than being a headless man, one of whom their alt is named after.

But what about the beer? It pours a smoked orange ale under a huge cream head releasing a bit of an orange marmalade aroma. In the mouth, a sweet wave of fruit-filled malt: plenty of graininess but also the sweet smoothness of residual maltose…mmmm, maltose. In the malt there is marmalade, sultana and kumquat. At least two distinct hop sensations with the black tea on the tongue as well as a bit of hot pine more to the back, cresting on the swallow. Plenty to chew on for a very reasonable 5.75%. Nothing thumb-index-pinkie salute here yet high praise from the BAers.

This might be the beer you really wanted.

Another Variation On Nutty Nutty World Of Fearmongery

This stuff is too unbelievable to not post for your consideration – with a big tip to Paul:

In a letter to the company, the Portman Group has warned that BrewDog’s products are potentially in breach of its official code of conduct. David Poley, the Portman Group’s chief executive, told The Scotsman: “We have asked this company to take remedial action to address potential problems that have been highlighted to them. “If a company fails to remedy the perceived breach, the matter will be formally referred to our independent complaints panel and, if a case is upheld, we will issue an alert advising retailers not to stock the product until it has been amended.”

Whew – what’s that smell?!? The only issue I have with the article is the claim that BrewDog’s beers are in Canada but as to the rest of it, crazy. Note that the Portman Group is a trade organization which will mainly represent firms who may be losing market to the innovative if cheeky lads from BrewDog. A very good point is made as well as to who is responsible for making cheap booze available to the market – other members of the Portman Group.

You know you are doing something right when this sort of stuff comes crawling out of the woodwork. Read BrewDog’s full response here.



Single Cask Brews: Manufacturing Scarcity Or Pure Genius?

I just about flipped out when I saw this post over at 2 Beer Guys (from the April 16, 2008 issue of The Coloradoan) about the Odell Brewing Co. (with whom I am not familiar but which I am sure is nice and run by fine folk, and all) doing a limited run of a series of single cask beers – each brew never to be repeated and the cask retired:

…Each batch of the ale, which will have more vanilla and caramel tones, will make enough for only roughly 120 cases before the recipe is retired, creating an exclusivity factor not usually associated with beer. Each 750 mL bottle – hand-corked, hand-signed and numbered – will sell for $24.99. “It’s a one-time kind of thing,” John Bryant, Odell chief operating officer, said of the process they hope will put them at the forefront of the market.

Excellent. Because we all need another mechanism to raise prices through exclusivity. But am I being fair? Am I being a rogue consumer who is too tight with the wallet. I would encourage, first, that you consider two posts by Stan from last January in which he makes a number of points relating to overly limited runs of barrel-aged beer and the effect on price and popularity. And isn’t that very last point, popularity counter-intuitive? Makes me wonder whether some of these high rated beers are a lot like the 60’s – that many who claim to have experienced them were never really there.

But my point is more, I hope, to the point. What is the basis of a $24.99 price tag on these bottles of beer? Is anything else at that price point? I trust that each of you will consider your responsibilities as an active player in the market and avoid artificial inflationary events. And, sure, it will be a price that is paid but so is “jerk tax”, that premium you pay whenever a vendor can get you for one reason or another. Why not $18.99 or $35.99? Using the math from the story, scrapping the barrel after only one use adds 450/1440 or 32 cents to each bottle or about a tenth that the corked bottle does (if what a US brewer told me last month is true.) Are you so out of control that you don’t care? Are you the sort that will run to this, that will try to profiteer even? Or will you just say no? What do you fall back on to make this decision?

Rock Stars? Enough With The Analogies Already!

So…you guys got any good beer in there? Some Saison Dupont maybe?

Earlier today, Stonch pointed out the somewhat strained tone of this press release floating around for a beer event half a day’s drive to my south in which one is promised that we may “[m]eet the luminaries of the craft beer world…[v]ery few events offer the opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with the “rock stars” of the craft beer world.” To be fair, I am not overly concerned with the world of PR and calling the fine brewers who will be there luminariesis a perfectly fine way to describe those in the forefront of any endeavor. But rock stars? Here is my trademarked immediate and rash comment:

This is the sort of marketing that led me to ask last year whether we love the beer or the brewer. “Celebrity” in itself only detracts given the immediacy of beer and the need to manage our understanding of their work and their ideas about beer – much of which is interesting and important but is utterly undermined by the characterization of “rock star.”

Besides, I like my rocks stars to be rocks stars and I expect them to point out – with all the outrage of the outcast (if they really be rockers) – all the bullshit around us. So, you may ask yourself, what would Joe Strummer or John Lennon or Johnny Cash have thought of this press release? Is this the Elvis of 1955 or the Elvis of 1972? Where do you place each name?

Rock star…I know what I think. I think they could as easily be called the “game show hosts” of brewing or even “the Beckhams” of beer – seeking fame now that they perhaps are not even the best on the pitch anymore. “Rock star” is so sold out as a term that it should be considered something of a backhanded compliment. Is that what they want to have thought of them. I doubt it. I say this is bad PR.

I suppose that was a bit harsh, a bit over the top with the whole fat Elvis thing¹…but when I think rock star I also think of The Darkness or even Spinal Tap which leads me to wonder which brewer so dubbed has turned it up to eleven? Or that line from Road Warrior about the guy known as “The Ayatollah of Rock-and-Roll-ah” as illustrated above. And really…is “rock star” enough? Are they not as much the Jedi Knights of brewing? Isn’t that, you know, just as stunned? Maybe some Old Testament imagery would help me understand who these brewers are?

How far can such dislocated hyperbole take us? As we continue our collective search for good beer and an understanding the place of craft beer, of its value and its appreciation, there are these uncomfortable moments of description popping up. Descriptions that have shades of elitist puffery as well as clumsy grasping for the right – but definitely earnest – word. I don’t know but is it too much to ask to ask for a little humour? Say what you like about borgy forums but I take the slightly metal-esque presentation of the Alströms as a bit camp. Maybe its because I am that novice masters shot putting metal and punk fan with the lifetime Ben Grimm Fan Club membership but I associate my association with beer a bit like they do – with a bit of self-effacing humour…they are being self-effacing, right? As with the unfortunate and often unwarranted eureka moments from some writers on brewing, I don’t think of all this stuff as some sort of rare and precious gift, a prize for the mantelpiece or something linked with celebrity. For me, this feeling of mine is informed by Knut’s label ølhund [aka “beer dog”] or Lew’s preference for the simple “beer fan“, the egalitarian joyful celebration of how were’re all in this together, we happy band, we cheery lot. Just enjoy yourselves.

I know. It’s a lot to extrapolate from one slightly unfortunate reference. But it’s beer we are talking about, right? Right?

¹[Ed.: ie. “Elvis: to young to die, too fat to live…”]

Belgium: Gouden Carolus Easter Beer, Het Anker, Mechelen

I had been planning on having this beer today as one small nod to the once busy task of brewing beer for holidays. Time was there were beers made for every saint’s day, every profession and every celebration of a stage in life. Now we are restricted to Yule and a few stragglers like this one for Easter. I had even complained about a lack of Easter brews when I was planning The Session last spring so I am at least grateful to have this one to try.

But before going there, I have read how Greg Clow over at Beer, Beats, Bites has uncovered calamity itself and has pointed out that the powers that be have censored the very label on this very bottle. I am quite innocent of all such understanding as my bottle kindly forwarded by the distributor, though slapped with the “Extra Strong Beer” label required by the Federal Food and Drug Act, is quite free from any thing dealing with the wickedness of the bunny.

Apparently, it is not so much this version of the bunny label, however, but previous versions that may have given the government some concern as is illustrated under the photos below. You will have to click to see the truth. I cannot bear it:*





Frankly, the more curious thing to me is the legal basis for the authority for making such a decision to enforce the banning of the bunny. In my chapter in Beer & Philosophy, I wrote about quite a number of these ridiculous sort of rules and they were all based on some sort or actual regulation. Ontario’s Liquor Licence Act at clause 62.1(10.2) provides that the Lieutenant Governor in Council (aka some particular bureaucract) may make a regulation in relation to labels:

…governing the information that may or must appear on labels and containers of liquor sold or kept for sale at a government store…

The government store is defined as a store established under the Liquor Control Act which would be the LCBO. You see, generally the LLA governs the activiities of the AGCO while the LCC speaks to what the LCBO can do – make sense? Well, in any event, regulations can be made for labelling at the store – but, as Greg points out, these beers are not for sale “at a government store.” So, in addition to there not actually being a bunny reference, there must be some other power to control labels. Under the LCA, it states at section 3(1)(j) that “the purposes of the Board are, and it has power…to determine the nature, form and capacity of all packages to be used for containing liquor to be kept or sold…” That might be it. But then somewhere there has to be a written statement of standards…and one would expect that to be found in the LCBO’s Trade Resources. And there it is: at page three of the Simplified Canadian Label Requirements (warning: pdf!) it states that beer label may not have imagery which is “misleading or imply irresponsible use of the product”. Hmmm – not very detailed authority for banning a bunny but the introduction to the LCBO’s SCLR mentions other sources of rules, including the CFIA which has jusrisdiction under the the FDA. Under that Federal law, beer is food and there is law about the labeling of food at section 5(1) of the FDA:

No person shall label, package, treat, process, sell or advertise any food in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, composition, merit or safety.

Could it be that beer is not meritorious enough to be associated with a rabbit? No, I think that we need to find the regulation that actually details this bunny stuff. The Food and Drug Regulations happily define in law what beer is but while section B.02.130(b)(vii)
allows for “irish moss seaweed of the species Chondrus crispus” it does not allow at all for Oryctolagus cuniculus – the European rabbit. Could it be under Canadian law the rabbit is not so much banned as just not included?

Anyway, I am having mine tonight in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus 2025 years ago and, in a bit, I will note down what I thought of the beer inside the bunny-fouled packaging.

Later: the beer pours the colour of seasoned pine lumber with a wild rocky head that quickly subsides. At 10%, one has to be somewhat responsible so I have nipped away at this one consious that the bottle has the equivalent strngth of five and a half ounces of rum. But it does not stick out as much as it might despite this being a quite mild mannered pale ale. It is somewhat tripel-esque but things can merge somewhat stylistically at this strength. Safe to call it a Belgian Pale Strong Ale as it is each of those things.

There is plenty of aromatic graininess, a little bit of mild apple and honey in the malt, a bit of a musty side and a nice cream note to the heart of it. There is a bit of a bite that makes me think there could be some wheat in the grist, too, but I know nothing about these things. The brewery says that the particular twist offered by this beer is the addition of three herbs but they do not stand out to my taste, though there is definitely a twiggy aspect. They also say “served with pride it isdrunken with respect.” Perfect – just as I like to be. Plenty of BAer love. Too bad it’s blighted by that frigging bunny.

*…it’s more than I can bear to think of you seeing these…

My Deep And Witty Analysis Of The Big Hop Giveaway!

My computer ate it. It was a virtual unified theory of beer blogging, an apology draped in an accusation resting on a question with its feet up on satisfaction. Brilliant. Gone. In sum: I didn’t like their variety packs, the special glass, Utopia, the ’90’s triple bock or their white-like thing; but, once called out, I found liked their value-priced Scotch Ale and premium Imperial pilsner a lot and the ads have grown on me; remember that good business knows it does one good to do good; remember, too, they are a big raft brewer with a range from perhaps some kraphtt, much craft, and some special; I have no idea what percentage of their total hops ordered this giveaway of allotment represents; but in the end it is great to see a breakaway brewery remember that a rising tide raises all boats. Good work, Jim.

The long version was better. An epic.

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.

Sign Of The Endtimes #3378

There are some things I won’t put on the beer blog – including some new gack called “Guinness Red”. Apparently the much jiggered with recipe moves over the last few decades have done their deed leaving the brewer to consider “the brand is the asset” now that it has destroyed the actual drink:

The launch of Guinness Red is the latest in a series of slightly odd, innovative brand extensions for the famous beer brand, which has been hit with declining sales. In February, in time for St Patrick’s Day, Diageo tied up with Marmite to produce a limited edition Guinness-flavoured Marmite spread, with just 300,000 hitting supermarket shelves. The company also launched the battery-powered “ultra-sonic” Guinness Surger that enables Guinness fans to create a proper “tight creamy” head to their beer when drinking at home. Perhaps the most bizarre brand extension was a tie-up with Northern Irish bread company Irwin’s Bakery, to create – after two years of research and development – Guinness bread. Guinness Wholegrain Bread, which has 17% Guinness content, is described as “the perfect malty bread” by Irwin’s.

Stonch has it right: “If this diabolical stuff passed the taste test, I despair of the British people.”