Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Stretching the Limits

Some things are just plain "Out There". They stretch the limits; the limits of propriety, they limits of society, even the limits of sanity. Of course, it's only by such stretching that the limits are ever expanded.

One of the main reasons I teach a class on beer is to help people stretch their personal limits, to help them expand their definition of what constitutes "beer". For far too many Americans, beer is defined by the very narrow stylistic range of American Light Lagers, exemplified by BudMillerCoors. I try to expose my students to many of the other styles of beer out there, to see the tremendous range of choices available, but there are some styles which are so "out there" that I don't spring them on my students, for fear of scaring them off.

This weekend I had a couple of brews which would certainly qualify as pushing the boundaries.

Back on June 18, 2009 I reviewed Midnight Sun's Cafe Amsterdam 10th Anniversary Dark Strong Gruit. Technically, this isn't even a beer, since it contains no hops at all. The label proudly proclaims "00 IBUs" and "no hops were harmed in the making of this beer". At the time I found it less sweet than I expected, with a nice flavor from the spices added. Last week during a stop at Sav-U Mor, I saw that they had some bottles of this for sale. I was interested to see how the passage of a year would have affected the gruit, given that hops were originally added to beer in the first place to help preserve it. How would a totally unhopped beverage fair?

When I poured the beer I noted no change in the appearance or the nose, but on the palate the difference was immediately noticeable. The fermentation process had continued in the bottle, and the beer had become quite tart over the course of a year.

Sourness is usually considered a defect today, but centuries ago, when all beers were stored in wood, sourness was pretty much an inevitable result of beer being kept for any period of time, as the microflora living in the wood would eventually add more and more sour flavors the longer the beer was kept. Many brewers blended sour old or stock ales with younger, sweeter brews to produced a desired flavor profile. This gruit was pretty sour, but still very enjoyable on its own terms. If you're interested in stretching the limits of your taste experience and want to know what most ales tasted like six or seven centuries ago, here's your chance. Snag a bottle at Sav-U-Mor and give it a taste. Just be careful: at 12% ABV, this "beer" is not to be trifled with!

After revisiting this unique beer and whetting my appetite for tart brews, I went digging in my beer refrigerator for something special and came out with a bottle of Boon's Geuze.
This beer is a lambic, a spontaneously fermented beers from Belgium. Once again, here is a style of brewing that dates back centuries, to a time before brewers understood the significance of yeast in the brewing process. Instead of being deliberately inoculated with yeast, lambics are simply exposed to the air overnight and are fermented by whatever yeasts happen to drift in. They are hopped, but where most brewers seek the freshest hops available, lambic brewers use very old hops, which have lost all their aromatic and bittering properties. They are added for their antibacterial preservative properties alone. Finally, lambics are aged, traditionally in wood, and can become quite sour after several years.

Most people's exposure to lambics is likely in the form of one to which fruit has been added. The sweetness of the fruit, traditionally cherries or raspberries, helps balance the tartness of the underlying beer. I prefer a geuze (or gueuze; spellings vary), which is a lambic without fruit. Instead, older, sourer lambic is blended with younger, sweeter beer, then bottled. The sugar in the younger beer help balance the sourness of the older component and produce a refermentation in the bottle, naturally carbonating it. This harkens back to the old technique I mentioned above, blending old and new beers to achieve the desired flavor.

The result is one of the most amazing experiences to be had in the world of beer. A sparkling, highly carbonated drink, it poured a cloudy, pale amber with a wonderful, dense and long-lasting white head. The aroma was of tart cider, very appealing. On the palate is was wonderfully light and remarkably dry, with enough sourness to make you pucker. Little malt and no hops, this beer was a classic geuze. Such beers are difficult to find, even up in Anchorage, but they represent another opportunity to stretch your beer palate.

Speaking of stretching the limits, another volley has been fired in the "strongest beer in the world" war. The Schorschbrau Brewery in German has reclaimed the title from Scotland's BrewDog with their announcement of the release a 43% ABV "beer", which tops BrewDog's 41% Sink the Bismark. Here's a graphic which shows the recent progression:

With the exception of the Boston Brewing Company's Sam Adams Utopia, all of these beers use freeze distillation to increase strength (see my blog on 3/21/2010 for a discussion of this process). While using freeze distillation has a long history with the eisbock style of beer, these newer brews have pushed the limits so far that I'm not even sure that they qualify as beer anymore. In my opinion, they are more like beer-flavored liquors than beer. I'm sure their brewers would disagree, but when you change something so fundamentally, I'm not sure you can legitimately continue to call it by the same name.

After all, you can only stretch the limits so far, before they want to snap back.

That's about it for this week. Don't forget there's live music at St. Elias every Thursday from 7 to 9 PM. It's Thumper's Credo again this week.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

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