The Best Part About Being Predisposed is not Knowing It
The best part about being predisposed, really is not knowing it… At least, that’s how I like to look at things. When it comes to being a brewer, I like my beers to look, feel and even act a certain way way. I call them flavor driven beers. This is my notion of brewing process driven beers where flavors are gained through the development of new techniques. Many authors and consumer have dubbed these types of beers as “Extreme Beers.” And for what it’s worth, those who make them “Extreme Brewers.”
The thing is, I don’t consider myself nor the beers we make to be Extreme which leads me to the Subject line for this blog. For the past 10 years, I have been gainfully employed as a professional brewer. During this time, I have inherited a reputation for producing cutting edge or “Extreme Beers.” As a professional brewer I, seek each and everyday to ensure that the beers we are making bear my artistic stamp. But at no time have I ever considered what I do as a brewer to be extreme. It most certainly is different by design but to call it extreme would be to ignore hundreds of years of brewing history.
Recently, there has been an enormous amount of attention heaped upon brewers all over this great country stretching the proverbial limits of traditional styles. These beers have caught the attention of the mainstream press and even found themselves being mentioned in the Wall Street Journal. Bravo. We finally have something worth being written about. Or at least I thought we did.
Little did I know, there is a backlash towards these beers mounting and much of the grumbling is coming from within the brewing community. It seems that some brewers- who have not joined the movement of extremists are upset with the progression of beer over the past 10 years. During this time, there has been an explosion of “bigger must be better beers,” and the creation of new style guidelines to categorize these beers.
Many of these beers are steroidal monsters which have their roots in traditional brewing styles. Perhaps you’ve seen them. Double IPA, Imperial Red Ale and even Imperial Pilsners. All of these new beer “styles” grew out of what is currently being referred to as a testosterone fueled movement by brewers engaged in a frat boy like pissing match of who can make a bigger ballsier brew. Thing is, I don’t necessarily view this as a bad thing.
I find it somewhat amusing this whole pissing match. Mostly because there have been some amazing beers created as part of this movement. Oh, I will grant you there have also been some phenomenal duds- maybe even more so than successes. But, as brewers have taken flavors to extreme levels as part of this process, we have learned an enormous amount about yeast and what it is capable of doing. Today, there are more than a handful of beers clocking in over 14% ABV and many of them are made here in this country. I may not be that old, but I can remember when Samichlaus was the strongest beer in the world. I seriously doubt right now that it would even be in the top 20 strongest beers in the world (now that’s a pissing match).
But it’s not just about ethanol producing let’s go to the moon and back rocket fuel style beers that are emerging from these yeast experiments. We’re in the midst of another yeast movement that is back to the wild yeast and microbial fermentations of the past where an endless number of permutations are possible. And the coolest thing about these beers is that they are often below 6.0% ABV qualifying in my world as session ales.
Of course, there is the dark side( cue the music ) of this yeast movement and for the past 7 years, we have been making our own steroidal monster of a beer known simply to many as Cuvee. It starts conventionally enough as a Belgian Style Dark Strong Ale and morphs like a super hero into a super extreme taste bud killing machine. After spending a year in used bourbon barrels with cherries and resident wild yeast, the beer emerges as a shadow of its’ former Punxsutawney Phil-like self. Over the years, it’s been called Rodenbach on Steroids.
Does this mean, we are “Extreme Brewers?” I’d have to answer emphatically no. Are we guilty of ramping up a traditional style? Probably. Have we created something uniquely American in our efforts. As of right now we have. And for that, I accept my punishment- whatever that may be. But still, you have to give and take when it comes to progressions like this. Clearly, we are in the middle of one of the most interesting movements in brewing this country has ever seen.
This past March, I had the pleasure of joining a few of my closest brewer friends on a pilgrimage to Belgium. This is a very small country with an enormous diversity of beers. Many people have labeled these beers as “Extreme” because of their flavors and production methods. I just think of them as unique.
The trip was arranged by my good friend Sam Calagione of Dogfishead fame and fortunes. He had been approached by a publishing company who wanted him to write a book titled curiously enough “Extreme Brewing.” Sam felt it important to make a pilgrimage to the Mecca of eccentric brewing known as Belgium. To complete this trip, Sam also invited Vinnie Cilurzo, Adam Avery and Rob Tod to accompany him on this journey.
Each of the brewers going on the trip was asked to ship over two versions of our “Belgian Style Beers.” For our part, we sent SPF 45- our spiced Saison and our elusive Cuvee de Tomme. Our beers were sampled at several points along the way by consumers, chefs and Belgian Brewers. Each of them had mixed reactions to what we were doing. Some thought they were skillfully made. Others found beers like our Cuvee de Tomme to be disasters not worthy of drinking. But none of them used the word “Extreme” to describe our beers. Because to these people, this was beer as beer can be- an artistic form of self expression with each and every new bottle.
At Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey, we’re not really all that concerned with Semantics or styles for that matter. We spend our time trying to make the most interesting beers “for sinners and saints alike.” If we do our job(s) people will notice. If we forget our roots and how we got here, then we’ll join the ranks of the unemployed right quick. I really don’t give a rats’ ass these days about what you call this movement or if you even want to acknowledge it. For what’s it worth, I don’t think what we are doing is Extreme in any way. My notion of Extreme is trying to make yellow snow when it’s twenty below outside. Whether a brewer makes more mainstream, fringe based or God Forbid Extreme beers matters not to me. What matters the most is that they make them well. From there, everything else works itself out.
Yet, I am proud to be brewing the beers we’re making right now. Given the explosion of incredibly unique beers that are being produced, I consider myself very lucky that we still make beers worthy of being discussed and interpreted. For that, I am thankful. So with that in mind, I am headed back to my new R & D lab where my guys are hard at work on our first ever Double Dry Hopped Imperial Non Alcoholic Beer. It’s a whopping .075% ABV and just oozes hops. I’ll see you on the other side.