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Tired of extreme beers?

Here’s one “real” (compared to the previous list) prediction for 2007 and one resolution.

The prediction: We may eventually grow tried of talking about “extreme beer (or beers),” but we won’t quit drinking them.

I’m sure that you are going to be reading (and therefore talking) more about them because Lew Bryson has written an article I’m anxious to read for Beer Advocate magazine, whose subscribers often take a walk on the extreme side.

That should provoke plenty of discussion, but it seems both polite and sensible to wait until the story is published to join in.

However here’s a little background to explain my upcoming resolution.

In researching his story Bryson sent a request to a forum run by the Brewers Association. He received dozens of responses within a day, including a lengthy one that Teri Fahrendorf of Steelhead Brewing posted. (You can read his request and her response here.)

Much conversation followed, among commercial brewers and among enthusiasts at several beer discussion sites. Also from Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey, who wrote in his blog that “at no time have I ever considered what I do as a brewer to be extreme.” But he also points out that some spectacular beers have resulted from what Fahrendrof calls “testosterone-driven hop one-upmanship.”

Here’s where personal guilt sets in. These beers make good copy, and journalists live for good copy. I even won a an award (money, a trip) for writing about Imperial IPAs. More recently I wrote a story for All About Beer magazine about Sam Calagione, Arthur and three other brewers who made a trip to Belgium as part of Calagione’s research for his book, “Extreme Brewing.” Re-reading that story I see the words “extreme beers” used far too casually (by me).

The phrase has made for brilliant marketing since Jim Koch of Boston Beer began using it in the early 1990s. It’s easy to forget what a stir Sam Adams Triple Bock, then the world’s strongest beer at 17% abv, created when it debuted at the 1993 Great American Beer Festival.

“At the time, everyone was trying to make one new classic style. That’s what was driving innovation,” he said. “I wanted to step outside of that, to try to expand the boundaries of beer rather than expanding on traditional styles.”

And he wasn’t alone – in innovating or celebrating “extreme beer.”

But the term is double-edged because we’re not close to agreeing on a definition. When I type “extreme beers” I don’t mean they must be unbalanced, jammed with hops and overflowing with alcohol. More than 90% of the beer sold in this country is some form of international lager (Miller, Heineken, Corona, etc.). Folks, we’re not part of the mainstream. That IPA Fahrendorf brewed in 1990 is still extreme to most the population.

Roger Baylor (publican of Rich O’s Public House in New Albany, Ind.) has authored the motto for us all to live by: “Extremism in the defense of good beer is no vice.”

But, you know, I’m wrong to think everybody agrees. In her letter, Fahrendorf writes about brewers “more interested in balanced beers than in extreme beers.” That would imply the two are mutually exclusive. Clearly, we’ve got a failure to communicate.

Thus (finally) my resolution: I will not use the term “extreme beer” unless the conversation absolutely demands it, and when I do I will make it clear just what I mean.

3 Responses to Tired of extreme beers?

  1. Loren January 8, 2007 at 12:49 pm #

    What’s sad is the post by Lew on BA linking Tomme’s blog and Teri’s reply to Lew had little, if any, discussion! And it was undoubtedly a turning point (or it will be soon) in the brewing mindsets to come. I think.

    Extremely talented brewers push existing boundaries. That’s the bottom line.

    Cheers!

  2. Lew Bryson January 8, 2007 at 2:32 pm #

    Good to see that you’re so eager to read my as-yet-unpublished piece that you neglected to even mention what that piece is about! A bit of clarification for your readers: the next issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine is ALL about extreme beers. When the call for article ideas went out to the writers, I responded by suggesting a contrarian piece, a single counter-balance to an extreme beer orgy. I asked brewers to consider what extreme beer meant for the brewer, the drinker, and the “movement.” Some of them ranted and raved — which makes good reading — and some of them were quite opinionated, but in the end we really came to a Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis kind of conclusion on the value of extreme beer (great resolution, BTW).

    But it looks like the main complaint of the ranting raving brewers is that they’re making great beers that people drink pint after pint of, and growing the base of craft beer drinkers, and penetrating the distribution channels to get craft beer into whole new markets…and the extreme beers get all the press. Our fault, Stan, our fault…but you knew that.

  3. Stan Hieronymus January 8, 2007 at 6:37 pm #

    Thanks for the details, Lew. Now I’m looking forward to it even more.

    Not that it isn’t still our fault, but in talking to a beer store owner the other day I was reminded that many of his customers are looking for new, exciting, etc. (I’ve installed a special device on my keyboard that shocks me when I type the word that begins and ends with an e and has an ‘x’ in there.)

    So I guess there could be economic consequences for a brewer wanting to get a new drink-by-the-pint beer rolling – but it also seems to me that those beers are still doing awfully well.

    Now I’ll go back to looking forward to the story – I always love a good Hegelian conclusion – and write something nice about a helles.

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