If there was a question about consumer interest in so-called extreme beer, at least in Boston, it was answered with three sold out sessions well in advance of Beer Advocate’s annual Extreme Beer Fest (EBF).
The 17th edition of EBF returned to a familiar and much more intimate venue, The Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, for the first time since 2013. For the last seven years, the event had been held at the Seaport World Trade Center, with about 12,000 attendees and more than 120 brewers, who poured more than 400 beers. However, a redevelopment of that venue forced a venue change.
The smaller venue led to (predictably) a better experience, with only 725 tickets sold per session. Unlike in previous years, the festival’s “It” beers were easily obtainable for anyone who didn’t spend most of their time gabbing (like me).
Two of the most talked about beers during Saturday’s early session, Weldwerks Brewing’s Hot Sauce Barrel-Aged Taco Gose, a 4.8% ABV Chile beer, and Cambridge Brewing Company’s Hot Cheetos and Takis, a 4.7% ABV American cream ale, still went dry. Note those under 5% ABVs. In 2020, extreme beer can be sessionable. Until it isn’t.
The longest line during the Saturday session I attended was for the festival’s highest ABV offering: Utopias, Samuel Adams’ 28% ABV American strong ale, which the company will proudly tell you is illegal in 15 states (Massachusetts isn’t one of them). The timed release left many tables empty as festival goers waited for their 2 oz. pour.
So what is extreme beer in 2020?
Beer Advocate co-founder and EBF organizer Todd Alström admitted that the extreme beer movement has evolved since the festival’s early days when only a few brewers were experimenting with exotic ingredients or different barrel types.
“Extreme implies that it’s going to be high ABV and hit you over the head, but now it’s about the subtleties and nuances as well,” he said.
“Every year, a brewer finds something new to do,” Alström added. “Extreme today is constantly pushing the boundaries.”
Yes, even extreme evolves. Alström pointed to Cambridge Brewing Company and brewmaster Will Meyers, who he called the “naysayers of extreme.” For EBF 2020, Meyers brought the aforementioned Hot Cheetos and Takis beer, as well as For Those Who Hear The Whisper, a 9% ABV “black metal beer brewed with sheep skulls aged in blueberry amaro barrels.”
Meyers admitted that Cambridge struggles with the idea of what is extreme each year, but has embraced “silliness” while striving to make a balanced beer.
“There are so many examples of extreme beer being just arbitrary gimmicks — like putting Cheetos and Takis in a beer,” he said. “Our goal, regardless of what we settle on, needs to be to make a balanced and successful beer, as opposed to just a bunch of junk.
“I think a lot of people in this room work really hard at presenting themselves not just as producers of gimmicks but trying to make a beer that is well-balanced and delicious, and hopefully stable,” he added.
WeldWerks has embraced that philosophy. The Greeley, Colorado-based craft brewery won over drinkers during the 2018 Great American Beer Festival with a gose that tasted like spaghetti, and followed it up in 2019 (and 2020) with a beer that tastes like tacos.
According to WeldWerks director of retail sales Eric Hashberger, if the company is going to say a beer tastes like a specific food, then the beer has to deliver on that promise.
To capture that taco flavor profile, WeldWerks worked with a Colorado hot sauce company that had taken one of the beer company’s barrels for its hot sauce. Once returned, the brewery reused it to barrel age the taco beer.
“It’s more than we just threw taco flavoring in,” Hashberger said. “The craft to the process made it exciting too.”
WeldWerks packaging technician Kyle Shurtz added that the goal is execution, not just being funny.
“Hopefully, where it’s [extreme beer is] going in the future is people approach it with more sincerity,” he said. “Not just try to make something to be funny for the sake of funny, and actually challenge themselves to execute it.”
Long-time EBF sponsor Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s ethos remains in pushing those boundaries, with past examples including In Your Mace, a coffee milk stout that counts among its ingredients, cili oils, the active ingredient in Mace brand pepper spray, and Chicha, a Peruvian beer brewed with corn that’s been chewed and spit out.
Dogfish Head co-founder Sam Calagione said extreme beer can’t be easily put into a box.
“If you try to put a definition around it, you’re fucked, because that would put limits on what it can be,” he explained. “I think it’s awesome that breweries are flying their freak flags in literally 360 degrees in this round, beautiful room.”
Dogfish’s 2020 slate of extreme beers included Prost & Toast, a 5% ABV alternative take on Samuel Adams Boston Lager in which Calagione and Dogfish brewing ambassador Bryan Selders grilled 100 pounds of homemade sourdough bread and threw it into the mash, creating a beer with a subtle smokiness. And then there was Vibrant P’Ocean, a 4.7% sour ale brewed with elderberry, elderflower, lemon and fleur de sel that was blended with two-year aged Rodenbach foeder beer, which Calagione called “a massive labor of love.”
For Tomme Arthur, the co-founder of The Lost Abbey, extreme beer goes beyond the four standard ingredients — grain, hops, yeast and water.
“There’s a lot of beer in this room that doesn’t taste like ‘regular beer,’” he said. “Amplified everything.”
After Saturday, what’s clear is the idea of “extreme” is becoming much looser, as Against the Grain national sales manager Daniel “Shaggy” Thompson said.
“Everyone’s doing something that we’ve never seen before or didn’t think would ever work,” he said. “Whereas things like double dry hopping or barrel aging might have been a little bit more extreme a decade ago, everyone has access to bourbon barrels. Everyone has access to new and unique hops and flavor profiles can be derived from anything.
“Really, extreme is what you make of it,” he said.