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The line between beer and not-beer is blurring as craft brewers get inventive with unusual (and sometimes downright mystifying) ingredients. F&W sends a writer on a pint-size tasting adventure.
Lately I've been drinking some odd beers at bars. Some of them have been pleasant surprises; others have made my mouth feel possessed. I may be getting frumpy in my early middle age (actually, I've always been frumpy), but I've started to wonder whether the craft beer movement, which has explored so much fascinating territory over the past decade, has strayed off the map altogether. When I found out that Colorado's Wynkoop Brewing Co. was making its Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout with roasted bull testicles, I was forced to ask myself: Has craft brewing finally gone too far?
"One of the great things about making beer," Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø said to me on a recent visit to Tørst, the Greenpoint beer bar where he curates the list, "is that there are almost no rules." Jarnit-Bjergsø, a Dane who now lives in Brooklyn, is widely regarded as one of the superstars of the craft beer world; for his Evil Twin Brewing label he is as likely to create fairly classic IPAs or pilsners as he is concoctions like his Imperial Doughnut Break, a jet-black porter made with, apparently, 1,000 glazed doughnuts. "If I want to put olives in a beer, or strawberries, that's OK—as long as what I end up with tastes good," Jarnit-Bjergsø told me. "If you tried to put olives in a wine, on the other hand, no one on earth would drink it." I asked him for his opinion of the much-hyped Beard Beer from Oregon's Rogue, which is fermented with wild yeasts harvested from Rogue brewmaster John Maier's facial hair. "If you're going to put yeast from your beard into what you're brewing, it's fine," Jarnit-Bjergsø said, weighing his words carefully. "But you'd better have a really good reason."
So, do these experiments in extreme brewing still qualify as beer? At what point do they turn into something unrecognizable—and, more importantly, not worth the risk? Inspired in part by my conversation with Jarnit-Bjergsø, my good friend Alex and I decided to do a tasting (this might be the place to state, for the record, that I'm not a craft beer fetishist). I went to St. Gambrinus Beer Shoppe in downtown Brooklyn and spent just over $100 on what struck me as an interesting, albeit highly unscientific, sample of what's out there these days. Then we drank everything. The result? Suffice it to say our tongues are in stable condition, and we're told we'll be able to drink beer again one day.
It might be useful to examine the term beer. According to the Beer Academy, a UK-based group of fermentation enthusiasts, beer is "an alcoholic drink brewed mainly from malted barley, hops, yeast and water." From a historical viewpoint, it would seem, the beverage is relatively easy to define—but not so fast. The Beer Academy goes on to state that "other sources of fermentable carbohydrate (e.g., maize, wheat, rice) and other natural ingredients may be added to create different styles and flavours." This begs the question of where the boundary lies between beer and not-beer. Peanuts are a source of fermentable carbohydrate; so are plantains, yuca root and beans. Maybe the only reason we aren't drinking bean beer at our local football stadium is that beer drinkers, at least in the US, have traditionally been a pretty conservative bunch. Thanks to the craft beer craze, however, that attitude is changing quickly.
"I remember being at a brewer's convention in 1994," Garrett Oliver, the editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer, told me. "IPAs were considered an almost forgotten, historic British brew at that time—few breweries were making them. Now you can get an IPA in any decent bar in America. Change can happen rapidly, but you do want to be careful. As they say in one of my favorite movies, This Is Spinal Tap: ‘It's such a fine line between stupid and clever.'"
Many craft beer devotees would claim, by way of rebuttal, that the array of styles and flavors now on offer is less a voyage into the unknown than it is a return to brewing's wild and storied past. Our understanding of what beer is, they argue, has been narrowed over the course of the modern age by a domestic brewing industry that's encouraged mass production and a drift toward monoculture. As anyone over the age of 30 can attest, in the recent past, beer essentially meant lager; even a Belgian wheat beer like Hoegaarden or St. Bernardus qualified as exotic.
To fortify our courage for our tasting, Alex and I started things off with a brew that probably wouldn't rate as strange, much less extreme, to most craft beer cognoscenti: Oude Quetsche, a lambic beer that's brewed with plums at Gueuzerie Tilquin in Belgium. Craft-brewing fanatics have been geeking out about sour beer in recent years, and in an era in which high-acid, unoaked white wines are all the rage, it's hard not to see a correlation: Sour brews tend to be tart and bright and wonderfully unsentimental, with a funkiness that calls to mind natural wine as much as it does lager.
Alex and I were expecting great things from Oude Quetsche, and we weren't disappointed. Far from introducing any sweetness to the experience, the plums create a particular spike of sourness in the middle, just at the moment the sip you've taken clears the back of your palate. Alex compared it to sneaking into a farmer's orchard and filling your mouth with not-quite-ripe-yet plums; I had to admit, there was something almost illicit in the pleasure this beer gave us.
The next beer we sampled, though, was unquestionably extreme. Higher Math, from Delaware's well-known Dogfish Head brewery, is a golden ale made with both cherry juice and chocolate, and described by the brewery as a "luscious chocolate-cherry birthday cake in liquid form." This should have been warning enough to proceed with caution—ditto the fact that it was 17 percent alcohol, right around the level of, say, Night Train Express—but we were still giddy from our happy experience with Oude Quetsche. Our judgment may have been clouded. "Smells like Russian black bread," Alex said cheerfully, taking a sizable gulp.
Before I could follow his lead, Alex gave a kind of grunt and set the glass down very carefully, like someone backing away from an angry gorilla. Ignoring his look, I took a small sip of my own. Something had gone dreadfully wrong in the making of Higher Math; that much was clear to us both. I recall the sensation of having my mouth stuffed with drugstore bonbons steeped in cherry-flavored schnapps. "Ah! That's so bad," I said, but it was Alex who summed it up best. "This is the worst bottled beverage I've ever tasted," he said. "And I'm including sour milk."
Still reeling, we opted for the relative safety of Bozo Beer, an Evil Twin imperial stout "with coffee and with natural flavors added." It became clear that Jarnit-Bjergsø is far from infallible. Because stouts tend to be so sweet and robust, brewers tend to regard them as particularly useful when experimenting with outlandish ingredients. That may be the case, but the one-two punch of Higher Math and Bozo nearly wrecked us. Bozo is the foie gras goose of beer, so packed with flavors that it seems a moral outrage. I managed to work my way through a small glass; Alex did not. "Molasses, chocolate, almond, hazelnut, oak spiral, chili, marshmallow," he read from the ingredient list, then added a few of his own: "air freshener, candle wax, Old Spice soap on a rope from 1976." In fairness, Bozo Beer describes itself, right on its own label, as "made for bozos." We found out later that Jarnit-Bjergsø had originally intended it as a parody of the excesses of the experimental brewing craze. Looking it up later that night on beeradvocate.com, we found that it has received a rating of 91—"outstanding." The world of craft beer is an eldritch one.
The final beer in our tasting was Rogue's Beard Beer. We approached it, as might be imagined by this point, with deep circumspection. I poured no more than a knuckle's width into two mason jars—mason jars seemed safer, somehow—and we stuck our noses in and sniffed like sommeliers. Unlike sommeliers, however, we weren't after subtleties in the bouquet; we were smelling for danger.
"No red flags yet," said Alex, and I had to agree. All we smelled was an agreeably sweet and wheaty aroma. We mustered our courage and drank. For all its hype, Beard Beer proved to be a mild-mannered ale with blessedly few quirks. Sweet at the beginning, very much like a Belgian blonde ale, it tapered to a subtly tangy finish. Wild though the yeasts may have been, there was virtually none of the potent funk I'd come to expect from spontaneously fermented beers, which use whatever yeasts are present in the air. This was a beer brewed to please. Which made me think that those in the true vanguard of craft brewing are less interested in finding out what they can do with chocolate or habaneros or prairie oysters than they are dedicated to creating beers you'd want a second bottle of.