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Road Trip Blog (for live reporting from the road).
Trip departure was June 4, 2007.
Return to Eugene was October 20, 2007.
Total Length of Trip was: 139 days (4 months + 19 days).

Extreme Brewing Dialog

In December 2007, writer Lew Bryson sent a post to the Brewers Association Forum, asking brewers for input on an article on extreme brewing that he was writing for the 2007 Extreme Beer issue of Beer Advocate. I know that quite often brewers file these writer's requests in the back of their brains, intending to answer the call eventually.

I felt this was an important topic, so in order to drive responses, I sent an intentionally provocative post to the Forum. Here it is, along with Lew's final article.

From: Lew Bryson
Subject: Extremely Bored with Extreme Beers?

Brewers,

I have an assignment for an article about how not every brewer is nuts about "extreme beers." I'm not looking for anti-extreme beer frenzy, but praise of session beers, talk about well-made classics, and success stories about selling those beers. For once, my deadline isn't tomorrow, either... If you could contact me by e-mail and let me know if you'd rather do a phone interview or get questions by e-mail, I'd appreciate it. If you'd like to know where I'm coming from, I used this editorial from my website as the successful pitch for the piece:

http://www.lewbryson.com/buzz1006.htm

Thanks, folks,

Lew Bryson

This letter is in response to Lew Bryson's BA Forum posting.

Disclaimer: This post was not meant to disrespect or bash any professional brewer's creative products. Rather, it was intended to incite dialog, since many requests from beer writers for opinions and information go unanswered. It appears I achieved my goal. Cheers, and thanks for caring about great beer. ~ Teri

Hi Lew,

I'm with you on the concept that over-the-top doesn't necessarily mean better, and sometimes means worse. As one of the pioneers of the microbrewing movement, I've always been interested in preserving balance and drinkability when pushing the envelope, rather than seeing "how far can I go?" with a beer.

Being a woman craft beer pioneer has given me a certain perspective. In my opinion, the first wave of microbrewers, my peers, who are about 40-60 years old (I'm 46), have always had "full-flavored," "classic for the style," and "well-balanced" as part of their recipe-designing guidelines. We began our professional careers when you could not find commercially-made classic beer styles at any price.

Other ways my generation "pushed the envelope" besides reinventing traditional styles, was to invent new styles of beer. However, we always strove for balance and drinkability. Some examples from my own brewing career include brewing with non-traditional grains, natural adjuncts, and spices. Some examples include rye malt, torrefied amaranth, pre-gelatinized wild rice, peat-smoked malt, fire-roasted chilies, fresh ginger, coffee, and de-seeded raspberries. Each unusual ingredient was featured in its own beer, and its natural flavors were allowed to shine. This was "pushing the envelope" in those days.

The second generation of craft brewers are now about 30-40 years old. When they took control of the creative helm, it was easy for them to find a commercially-made example of just about any traditional beer style that had ever been made. During their formative years, extreme sports were coming into vogue, and I think that influence had some effect on the way they wanted to make a name for themselves. Most of these brewers were men, and that's where I think my unique position as a woman brewer comes into focus. In my opinion, some of these young men subscribed to what I call "hop one-upmanship." There is a parallel movement toward alcohol one-upmanship. I think these trends have driven the upward IBU slide in GABF style guidelines for the last ten years.

Some of these young brewers are currently building their own breweries, which is a fantastic development. It will be interesting to watch as they metamorphose into businessmen and women, if they can sell enough of their extreme beers to make a profit. I predict the successful brewer/owners will brew more balanced beers to pay their bills, but may continue to brew their extreme beer recipes on a seasonal or specialty basis.

These questions now come to mind:

1. Will these new business owners be able to sustain profitability selling primarily the kinds of "extreme beers" that made their reputation?

2. Will these brewers continue to develop more extreme beers?

3. When every popular beer is extreme, are none extreme?

4. How far can the extreme edge go beyond where it is today?

5. Will there be a consumer backlash? Will consumers tire of having their limits tested as to what they're willing to drink?

6. What kinds of beers will the third generation of American craft brewers design and brew, in order to make their names in the brewing world?

Please allow me to make a prediction on the last question, based on the young brewers who work for me today: The brewers who are within the 2nd generation's age group, and who count the extreme brewers as their peers, will want to make their name by designing even more extreme beers. However, the younger brewers, such as my two brewers who are ages 24 and 26, seem much more interested in balanced beers than in extreme beers. Therefore, I think they will find another way to make their name in the industry. I don't know what that way will be, but I am very interested to watch their progress and taste their results.

Thanks for lending me the soapbox, and good luck with your article.

Cheers, Teri

Links to Comments about this Forum post:

Stan Hieronymus's blog
Beer Advocate discussion
Tomme Arthur's blog (no longer online)

And here is Lew's article, which appeared in Beer Advocate magazine in 2007.

Extremely Annoying Beers: Session Beer Brewers React

by Lew Bryson

"The beer with the most hop flavor, the most smoke flavor, the most alcohol, is the one that gets attention in the U.S. market. The subtler, more nuanced, and interesting beers are declared 'wimpy' by comparison. Meat-headed macho bullshit. News flash: Sometimes less is more."

And that seems as good an opener for this piece as any; thanks to importer Dan Shelton for providing it. Sure, there are plenty of brewers and importers devoted to delivering the latest version of tonsil-wallop to über-geek taste buds; there's enough to fill the rest of this magazine. Is it any real surprise that there are also brewers who think "extreme" beer is…what did they call it? Ah, right: "sugar-overdosed, cranked-up, fusel alcohol bombs."

These are the brewers (and drinkers) who find extreme beer extremely boring. They'd much rather celebrate the session beer, a beer with low-average alcohol, plenty of flavor, and superb drinkability…that allows for more consumption of that flavor. "If I'm out and about," says Clipper City Brewing (Baltimore) owner Hugh Sisson, "I want to drink beer. If I have [barleywine], I can have two...and then I have to go home. Which is a pain in the ass."

Of course, it's not always about the booze, it's also the bitterness. "I introduced an IPA last year," says head brewer Jeremy Goldberg, of Cape Ann Brewing (Gloucester, Mass.). "I went to a well-respected beer bar in Boston…the first question from the owner was, "how many IBUs?" When I responded that it would be about 65, I was met with a frown and a hand signal that it needed to be higher."

"From an evolutionary perspective, people are predisposed to not like bitter flavors because it means poison, sick, bad," New Belgium brewer Matt Gilliland muses. "What percentage of people in the U.S. do you think have overcome that genetic hard-wiring and really like 100 IBU beer? There you go, that's your market."

But sometimes, it's more…philosophical. Larry Chase, the worthouse brewer with Granite City brewpubs (Ellsworth, Iowa), says "I've tasted some extreme beers. One the other day was supposed to be a double imperial pilsner. I like pilsner, so I drank it, and I thought, why? Why do that to a pilsner?"

Todd Ashman, who had been known to brew some extreme beers when he was brewing in Flossmoor, Ill., tells of his experience with Belgian brewers. "The Belgians don't really think we have a lot of focus. We're brewing these really big beers without any purpose. The head brewers from Moortgat, from Westmalle, were saying, 'Oh my God, why are you guys doing this?' We were doing it because we were Americans and we could."

"Extreme beer is entirely an American phenomenon," Shelton agrees. "It's just another facet of the American 'Pizza with Everything' phenomenon. Just put everything you can think of on that plate, or in that pot, in big quantities, and Americans will feel good about paying more money for it. Don't worry about whether the flavors go together at all, or create an integrated whole."

Is it because we're Americans, or is it a different 'bigger' thing? Veteran brewmaster Teri Fahrendorf takes a theory that's been joked about before and spikes it right into the middle of the debate. "Most of these [extreme] brewers were men, and…as a woman brewer…in my opinion, some of these young men subscribed to what I call 'testosterone-driven hop one-upmanship.'"

Alex Crowe, former brewer at Sackets Harbor Brewing (Sackets Harbor, N.Y.) sees that on both sides of the bar. "There is the machismo of the customers. There's always that guy who has to have the hottest wings, most alcoholic brew, most roasted coffee…. Bad brewers are also a part of the mix. It's easier to be a freak than to be exemplary. These types whip up the machismo of the beer drinker and create the buzz."

Mark Thompson, head brewer at Starr Hill Brewing (Charlottesville, Va.), thinks it is all about bigger, and he counters with "the belief that it is better to make an 8 ounce burrito and not a Super Double Big Gulp 72 ounce burrito. Just because the 72 ounce burrito is on sale for less than the 8 ounce burrito when you walk into the 7-11 does not mean that you have to buy more than you want. Our burrito is overflowing and in risk of bursting."

Thompson's counter is something he calls 'beer minimalism,' and he lives it with four year-round session beers and session-strength seasonals. Starr Hill does just fine with that, as do plenty of other places. Most breweries rely on session strength beers to keep the doors open and the lights on, and most beer drinkers drink beers under 5.5% ABV day in and day out.

The session brewers know that, and they have steady customers. Curt Decker has run Nodding Head (Philadelphia) to that tune. "We opened as a session beer pub," he recalls, "and took a lot of grief about it. We felt strongly at the time that that was the way to go. We'd spent a decent amount of time in Europe; 5% is a strong beer in the UK." Decker was right: Nodding Head runs flat out and sells every drop.

It's not just business models. These guys are pissed because they see extreme brewers lionized, and they know that the lower-strength, more moderately-hopped beers they're making are every bit as difficult to brew. Eric Wallace, owner of Left Hand Brewing (Longmont, Colo.) gets right down to it: "As our VP for brewing operations once said, "Any monkey can put 400 pounds of hops in the kettle." Not everyone can make a great-tasting, well-balanced beer that you can have four or five of."

Who's doing the lionizing? Well, us, of course: the beer press and beer websites, and the beer aficionados who read and frequent them. And we are, as Independence brewpub (Philadelphia) brewer Tim Roberts reminds us, a very small in-group. "For example, while we might consider Sierra Nevada Bigfoot tame, almost everyone else in the world would disagree. It's a very small group of people that feel that those types of beers are somehow standard now, and want something more over-the-top."

Both groups have their glory, of course. The extreme brewers have adulation and critical acclaim, and plenty of big clips in the beer press. The session brewers have steady selling beers that pay their salaries and mortgages.

The session brewers also feel that they are brewing for the people who will be coming over to craft beer. "There is definitely a market for extreme beers," says Scott Isham at Harper's Brewpub (E. Lansing, Mich.), "but in reality they're not brewing for 99% of the people, who just want a nice drinkable beer. And in the long run, those are the people we want to help us get our 10% of the market."

True, but how are they going to learn about craft beer? Maybe through extreme beer, says Mr. Extreme Beer himself, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewing (Milton, De.): "Extreme beers help the more adventurous session beers seem less extreme to the average consumer…and that's a good thing. Dogfish Head Raison d'Etre was an extreme beer five years ago. It doesn't seem so extreme anymore, does it? That makes the wide world of craft beer more approachable and comprehensive to those consumers just beginning to explore it."

Maybe, Sam. But carrying on the conversation is a job for session beers. As Eric Wallace put it: "I could go on, but I'd rather do it over a porter or three."

The End


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