by Adem Tepedelen, author of The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers
Says author Adem Tepedelen, “I wrote The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers to not only document the insane creativity happening in craft brewing, but to bring to it the same sense of fun and irreverence that has spawned beers named after metal subgenres (Jester King’s Black Metal, Thrash Metal, Funk Metal, etc.) or Iron Maiden-inspired beers, like New England Brewing Co.’s 668: The Neighbor of the Beast and Ninkasi’s Maiden the Shade. And because metal is in my background, and this book grew out of my “Brewtal Truth” beer column in Decibel magazine, I thought adding ‘extreme music’ pairings for each beer would be provocative and entertaining. But you don’t have to be a metal fan to appreciate extreme beers.”
As a longtime music journalist who has mostly written about heavy metal, I know extreme. I have a deep appreciation for creative types of any sort who want to test boundaries and see what happens when they eschew doing things the way they’re “supposed to be done.” If it wasn’t for a handful of upstart home brewers in Northern California who wanted to bring flavorful, complex beers to a market filled with bland, generic mass-produced lagers, we might not have the thriving craft beer industry that exists today. Back in 1980, Sierra Nevada’s well-hopped Pale Ale would have been extreme to a beer drinker raised on the macrobrews that dominated the market at the time.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was extreme because it was flavorful. You could taste the piney, citrusy hops. Never mind the fact that it smelled amazing. And there was an actual bite of crisp bitterness on the finish. It had everything that all the other beers on the market lacked. And for some reason, this extreme brew gained a small following of drinkers who discovered that beer could taste good. It actually had characteristics you could pick out. This beer is, in fact, the second best-selling craft beer in the U.S. today.
A couple of guys—Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi of Sierra Nevada—kicked the doors wide open for the ensuing craft beer revolution by going completely against the grain. The one lesson that subsequent craft brewers must have surely taken from this is that you don’t necessarily have to brew what everyone else is brewing, as long as it tastes good and it’s well made. Suddenly there was Stone Brewing out of San Diego putting a major dent in the world’s hop supply with its audaciously aggressive and bitter brews. On the East Coast Dogfish Head was brewing beers with ingredients most people cook with. Avery cranked up the ABV (alcohol by volume) in their beers to ridiculously high levels. Adherence to well-defined beer styles wasn’t really a concern for anyone.
Sure, most craft beer sold isn’t as out-there, but as the market has grown and enthusiasts’ tastes have matured and evolved, brewing has become more daring than ever. These modern extreme beers are the result of unfettered imaginations and total creativity. Truly anything goes, and with a thirsty-for-new-brews market to support them, brewers are going for it in a big way.
Many brewers prefer to use terms other than “extreme” when discussing their brews. They talk about brewing beers with “more flavor,” “big beers”—which is understandable, because calling your product “extreme” may not be best marketing strategy. But it’s hard to argue that a 15% ABV imperial Russian stout aged in bourbon barrels is “average.”
There are loads of beers out there now like this—beers that are pushing every boundary imaginable: unusual ingredients, prodigiously hopped, ABV levels approaching wine, outrageous names and labels. As the craft beer industry grows, so does this market. These are typically beers that are brewed and released seasonally. They aren’t, for the most part, everyday-drinking beers, though there seems to be an insatiable market for high-alcohol, über-hopped double/imperial IPAs.
The willingness to go to extremes has been an inherent part of craft brewing for decades, but at no time in the past has there been such a preponderance of extraordinary beers such as the ones today. Who knows, maybe in another 30 years these beers—like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is today—will seem commonplace.
The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers author Adem Tepedelen created the “Brewtal Truth” beer column for Decibel magazine in early 2009. He has written about metal for RollingStone.com, Revolver, Mojo, Alternative Press and Guitar World and about beer for All About Beer, Imbibe, EAT, Northwest Palate, Seattle Weekly and others publications and websites.
Also try: Globe Pequot Press’s Beer Lover’s series, featuring regional breweries, brewpubs and beer bars for those looking to seek out and celebrate the best brews—from bitter seasonal IPAs to rich, dark stouts—their cities have to offer: