Pint of No Return

Got peanut butter, wild bacteria or triple hops in your beer?

By Mara Zepeda
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 30, 2007

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Brewed boys: Extreme beer is to the brewski what skydiving is to commuting.

Remember those insanely popular "No Fear" T-shirts circa 1992? They had a cartoon of a flying daredevil engaged in some reckless, throw-caution-to-the wind activity like, oh, snowboarding.

Mine was "No Fear: Skydiving Team." While proclaiming my fearlessness I was, in fact, deeply afraid (of mean boys, busy intersections and failing science). I still squirm thinking about the one occasion I wore that shirt, and how--contrary to its empowering message--it heightened my sense of wussiness.

Some things, on closer examination, aren't what they claim to be. One thinks of SUVs that are neither sporty nor utilitarian, and the hyperbolic use of the word "extreme" in relation to phenomena that are actually rather mainstream.

Like "extreme beer," a brewing trend that makes me wince. Don't people drink beer precisely because of its dogged, dependable non-extremeness? Isn't "extreme" what absinthe is for?

Or am I just being conservative? After all, as Chris Mullins, owner of McGillin's Old Ale House, points out, "Twenty years ago microbrews were the extreme beers of their time."

Mullins is dedicating June to exploring locally crafted "extreme beers" with tasting events hosted by a number of breweries. Beers are deemed extreme for several reasons: They might be brewed with unusual ingredients (like chocolate, oysters, peanut butter, saffron, green raisins, honey or seaweed), aged in oak barrels, inoculated with wild bacteria, have exceptionally high alcohol content, or double or triple hops. In other words, they're the laboratories in which mad scientist brewers experiment.

Sample brews at McGillin's will include Weyerbacher's Blasphemy (with anise and raisin flavors and hints of licorice and vanilla), Dock Street's Illuminator Double Bock and Stoudt's Double IPA. A highlight will be Dogfish Head's just-released Black and Blue (with blackberries and blueberries). McGillin's will have only a limited supply on a to-be-determined night, so visit their website for updates.

Artists David Larned and Sarah Lamb have won my undying admiration for creating the most beautiful, frameable beer bottle labels I've ever seen (for, respectively, Dogfish Head's "Black & Blue" and "Red & White," a Belgian-style Wit with coriander, orange peel and fermented pinot noir juice). I'll get down on my knees and weep with joy if the next big thing is fine art on beer labels.

Both the labels' Old World beauty and the dizzy novelty of the extreme beer movement make me nostalgic for less trendy times. In her recent edifying and charming book The Joy of Drinking, Barbara Holland reminds us of the heady days of 1787 when the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention "adjourned to a tavern for some rest, and--according to the bill--they drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of port, eight of hard cider and seven bowls of punch so large that, it was said, ducks could swim around in them. Then they went back to work and finished founding the new Republic."

Leave it to the founding fathers to define, as few of us ever will, the true meaning of the word "extreme."

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