The term extreme beers is a very subjective one. To mainstream lager drinkers, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale would be extreme. To the uninitiated, the "motor oil" as some of my friends call it, can be obtrusive to the sight, smell and taste, keeping them from even approaching a glassful. Remember the adage "you can lead a horse to water ..." and all that. Well, I've seen it all too often, even from the bravest of souls.
This category of beers has become famous with the proliferation of styles such as Double and Triple IPAs, Bourbon-aged anything, imperial this and that, etc. Brewers of note are Sam Calagione, Tomme Arthur, Adam Avery, Vinnie Cilurzo and others. The bandwagon has been jumped on so many times, the tires are bulging and ready to blow. Not to say I don't love what they're doing. I have a room full of aging beer at home, an homage to these monuments of brewing skill that we can store to please us for many years to come.
My major complaint is that this plethora of choices makes the procurement of them all expensive and expansive. Budget and storage space is limited in my modest home, though it has not slowed me down from the hunt. Without the aid of a cadre of beer geek friends, I would be forced to make consumption of these brews my life's work.
The appeal of these specialty beers is due partially to their uniqueness and limited distribution. Everyone wants to be part of the latest and greatest, to be able to post their reviews on the multitude of beer websites and be read by the faithful, and to possibly garner admiration from the less fortunate who could not travel several hundred miles and wait in line on the day of release. Trading these commodities has become as much of a pastime as collecting sports memorabilia.
Randy Mosher's book of the same name is a DIY manual for the aficionados to join the fray at home. One must remember that many of the pros started making their beers as homebrewers and small batches of esoteric failures are less painful to sewer than 15 to 50 barrels! You can learn by others' mistakes and avoid the waste of effort and supplies.
We like to think that this beer revolution has proffered the first extreme beers in history, but in my estimation, that is not true. Looking back over the history of our favorite beverage, we have seen some strange elixirs brewed by various cultures around the world. Several that come to mind are chicha, choc, and even the lambics of Belgium. Yes, the wonders of the Senne Valley that have become fairly mundane to us today. Even before all the golden lagers became the world's standard, there were these tart and refreshing beers that emerged from the burbs of Brussels. Wildly yeasted and fermented for years, lambics gave impetus to the EB movement. Nowadays, beers are being infected by bacteria and yeasts at every turn, and Americans buy them by the thousands! Oddly enough, my first gueuze was from Lancaster Malt Brewing in Pennsylvania. I had heard about these beers from MJ's Beer Hunter tapes but could not find any commercial examples at that time. After my first taste, I was smitten by the lambic bug!
Now brewers worldwide are collaborating to brew up something special to satisfy the tastebuds of the American consumer. They combine the strengths of each brewery to synergize a commercially successful product and take it on tour. You've seen the ad for Intel, "our rock stars are not like your rock stars," that's exactly what we have here! The "Brett Pack" has traveled the world guest brewing and spreading the gospel of tartness for all to hear. What a life, huh?!
So, here we are with a great era to be into beers. Our innovative bent right now seems like a fad to some, but to others, they hope that it will continue to evolve.
The other school of thought is session beers, those lower-alcohol and not-so-unusual brews that we can sit and enjoy without wreaking havoc with our taste buds from sip one and leaving us a slobbering mess after just two beers.
There is certainly room in our lives for both, depending on the social and economic situation. Factions on both sides have had a contentious relationship, but both have merit.
To continue with my aphorisms, "that's why we have vanilla, chocolate and strawberry." Only now, we can have them all in one beer! Vive la difference!
June 9: Repour the Jersey Shore, Spot Pizza Grill, 1506 Rt 35, Point Pleasant Beach, Ocean County, pay as you go, charity event for Shore 2 Recover. Great N.J. beers pouring.
June 22: 17th annual N.J. Craft Brewers Guild Fest, Battleship N.J., Camden. All the best N.J. has to offer and a free walking tour of the ship. $45, NJBeer.org.
Mark Haynie is a craft-beer expert who lives in Somers Point and travels extensively to find new beers. He is a contributor to the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and is the co-author of the book New Jersey Breweries with Lew Bryson. His column runs every other week.