Extremely Boring: Unimpressed by the Latest 47 Percent, 180 IBU Monsters, Brewers Say No to Going Extreme

Feature by | Feb 2007 | Issue #2

Illustration by Dan Gilsdorf

“The beer with the most hop flavor, the most smoke flavor, the most alcohol, is the one that gets attention in the US market. The subtler, more nuanced and interesting beers are declared ‘wimpy’ by comparison. Meat-headed macho bull. News flash: Sometimes less is more.”

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-to-average alcohol, plenty of flavor and superb drinkability. “If I’m out and about,” says Clipper City Brewing (Baltimore, MD) owner Hugh Sisson, “I want to drink beer. If I have [Barley Wine], 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, MA). “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 sixty-five, 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 (Fort Collins, CO) brewer Matt Gilliland muses. “What percentage of people in the US 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, IA), 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 make some extreme beers when he was brewing in Flossmoor, Illinois, 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.”

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 in New York 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-Eleven 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 percent 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 percent is a strong beer in the UK.” Decker was right: Nodding Head runs flat out and sells every drop.

It’s not just a difference in 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, CO) 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, we are, of course. The beer press and beer websites, and the beer aficionados who read and frequent them. And we are, as Independence Brew Pub (Philadelphia) brewer Tim Roberts reminds us, a very small group: “While we might consider Sierra Nevada Bigfoot tame,” he says, “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 (East Lansing, MI), “but in reality, they’re not brewing for 99 percent 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 percent 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. “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 puts it, “I could go on, but I’d rather do it over a Porter or three.”