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May, 2003

In Extremis

I judged a beer competition recently. I'm no "certified beer judge," I'm just a beer writer, but they put me on the best of show panel for the "best beers in New York" at the TAP New York fest in the Catskills. I gave it my best shot. The other three people on the panel were homebrewers and enthusiasts, no pros. There was another four-person panel judging for the "best beers in the Hudson Valley, again, three homebrewers and enthusiasts and a beer writer: Pat Ravida, from Yankee Brew News.

We got nine beers. I didn't know whose beers they were, which is how it should be. So the four of us started sampling, sniffing and tasting. I ran down through them in pretty quick order, just looking for ones that either knocked me out or were obvious drops. There were two quick drops, and one beer that really stood out, an almost Baltic porter-ish doublebock that I was sure was Wagner Valley's Sled Dog (turned out to be DJ Swanson's Double Trouble Doublebock from John Harvard's on Long Island, and my hat's off to him). There was a very hoppy pale ale, a hefeweizen, and a stout that were also pretty good. 

When the rest of the panel was ready, we started talking. One of my drops went out immediately, the other one of them had picked as his favorite. I can't speak to this, I really have no idea why. But the thing that I noticed was that only two of the panel were pushing for the hoppy pale ale. I thought it was too hoppy for its body, hop tea, and that's what the other guy with me said.  The one woman on the panel (who I otherwise pretty much completely agreed with) seemed outright confused by this: it's hoppy, it must be good. Damned if I was going to bow to that. We prevailed, she let it go, and we compromised by picking her second choice, the hefe (Saranac, and that's great news: easily available, good hefe in a 12 oz. bottle!), over the stout (Chelsea's Oatmeal Stout: Chris Sheehan rocks on stouts) when the two got into a tie for 2nd and 3rd. Eventually we were all happy, and I was pleased because all three were drinkable beers: the doublebock was big, but delicious.

Meanwhile, over at the other panel... They were having problems reaching consensus. We couldn't tell what they were arguing about, and didn't want to know: it was their panel, not ours. When the results came out, I was pretty sure I knew what the problem had been. Second and third went to Davidson Brothers of Glens Falls for their Scotch Ale and Oatmeal Stout, and first went to Troy's Rauchbier. Wild screams of delight at the announcement, and I thought, man, how'd Pat talk 'em into that one? 

Don't get me wrong. I'd had Troy's Rauchbier and enjoyed it. I had asked Peter Martin how much smoked malt was in it: 50%, and he'd smoked it himself, with beechwood (that part didn't surprise me at all: they do everything in-house at Troy). It was a very smoky beer. And that's what one brewer snarled as he left: "Best beer in the Hudson Valley? There's maybe 10% of the people here who can drink a pint of it!" 

At first I thought he was just bitter. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought: he's right. It is extreme. And I started to wonder if that was what had won it the first place.  Because we beer-lovers, we geeks, if there's one thing we like, it's extreme beers, beers that hang it out there, beers that we can drink and thump our chests and say, "Yeah, now that's a beer!" Especially if the beer is so smoky, so hoppy, so sour, so extreme...that other beer-lovers can't handle it. You'd better believe that makes us feel good. 

What children we are. I've been watching this take place over the past 10 years, beers getting more and more out there, and the geeks just racing after them in a glowing haze of lupulin and alcohol, with maybe a little brettanomyces floating around the edges. But the big-selling beers in the craft movement are anything but extreme: Fat Tire, Sammy Adams, Widmer Hefeweizen, even Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Geeks disdain them, and have nothing good to say for a brewpub that puts out a range of flawless, delicious, drinkable beers that don't go over 6.0% ABV or 36 IBU.

Look, what's one of the most extreme breweries out there? My good friends down to Delaware, Dogfish Head. What are they known for? Insane stuff like World Wide Stout (20+% ABV), 90 Minute IPA (90 IBU), Midas Touch (brewed with a combo of malt, grapes, and honey). I like all of them, hell, I really like the World Wide, one of the most drinkable überbiers out there. But my most favorite Dogfish Head beer right now is the bottle-conditioned 60 Minute IPA, one of the tastiest, smoothest IPAs I've ever laid lip to. (Yes, that's my quote on the six-pack holder, and no, I don't get a dime for that.) Apparently everyone else thinks so too: in less than six months, this new beer has become the brewery's best-seller. 

Extreme beers are fun. I know some people who drink them all the time. But I know people who do nothing but look for the next Grab My Hab' hot sauce, too. I love these guys, but I have to they understand subtlety? Do they appreciate the beauty of a perfectly brewed Dortmunder Export? Do they lust after a beautifully conditioned cask Mild? Do they drool at the thought of a cellar-cool unfiltered pilsner? 

I talked to some brewers about this, and something Bill Covaleski of Victory Brewing said struck me. He laid some of the blame at the feet of beer writers for being entranced by writing about the big beers. "Try as we might to consume responsibly and keep the roads safe," he said, "we face a tougher challenge doing so when our desires draw us to the 9% brain benders.  My view is that skewed attention is bad for beer diversity and simply irresponsible journalism. There is plenty that is noteworthy about a Munich dunkel to a beer-curious reader. Does the beer media need to take their stylistic cues from National Enquirer? Only if they are not thinking. Big picture, guys!"

Big picture, indeed. Huge beers are getting a lot of attention lately. Do yourself a favor: take a break. Get your geek friends together for a session of session beers. Get together for a night of card-playing, an impromptu film festival, or go fishing. But don't bring single bottles of brain-wallop. Bring cases of session beer. Bring beer that promotes conversation on other topics, not itself. 

You might find that you have a lot of fun, and enjoy the beer tremendously. You might even get to know your geek friends beyond what they know about beer. Beer is more than just the flavor, just as it is more than just the alcohol. Beer is a social lubricant: grease your conversations! I'm not saying drop extreme beers. Just remember that they're all part of the mix, and think more often about your favorite 5% quaff. It deserves your admiration, too.



Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
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Revised: October 31, 2003