Last time I surfaced on these virtual pages I was on my way to Boston for the Extreme Beer Festival, specifically the Night of the Barrels. If I were a novelist instead of a beer writer, I would probably spin a long story about how I ended up in Boston on one of those weird extended beer drinking odysseys -- perhaps a month long pubcrawl where I and my beer-seeking friends stumble from pub to pub sampling whatever we can find and stirring up trouble along the way. While the excursion to Boston was exciting, the aftermath was anticlimactic with me ending up with a microbiological infestation of the lungs which prevented my enjoyment of beer for almost two weeks.
I did scribble a notebook full of observations while in Boston and shot some 150 photographs, but I didn't get down to the hard work of transforming this rough material into the fabric of narrative until I returned to Long Island. It took me almost an entire week to write-up this Boston beer adventure in rough form. That's when the bug bit me and reduced me to drinking nothing but tea, orange juice, and chicken broth.
It wasn't my idea to go to the Extreme Beer Festival in Boston. Usually, when I see the word "extreme" and "beer" paired together I run the other way. The reason for this is that over the years I've grown tired of syrupy, under-attenuated, alcohol bombs. The thirsty beer drinker in me wants to tilt back a glass and slake that seemingly unquenchable thirst that constantly plagues me. Also, if I'm going to sip on something, give me a single malt scotch. Heresy! you say?
I admit a prejudice against "extreme beers" that is not deserved and is shaped more by my non-systematic and idiosyncratic tasting habits. For example, when I think of "extreme beer" I think of barleywine or imperial this or double that. To be frank, I've had very few Imperial Pilsners that were improvements on their less imperial cousins. I've also balked (perhaps unfairly) at what I perceived of as a trend in beer making and consuming that was more concerned with machismo than taste. You know what I mean -- the idea that you are more of a man if you can pound down three pints of barleywine than your buddy who is sticking with the cask conditioned mild or ordinary bitter. What about those hop heads? Going for the 100 plus IBU beers. Do people really like those beers or do they have compensation issues?
It's a good thing that I went to the Night of the Barrels because that experience showed me what the term "extreme beer" really means. So what is extreme beer, really?
Extreme beer is one of those terms with a temporally sliding meaning. Extreme beer today is tomorrow's normal beer. Basically, extreme beer is any beer that is on the cutting (bleeding?) edge of the flavor-aroma-alcohol phase space. Extreme beer is the ever expanding surface defined by the maximal points on a multi-axis graph. Alcoholic content and IBUs are only two possible axes. We could probably define at least a dozen different flavor axes: acidic, sweet, smoky, malty, etc.
What I learned at the Night of the Barrels specifically is that brewers here in the US are starting to learn and experiment with the complexity and multiplicity of flavors introduced by barrel aging and blending beer. It's not just about alcohol and IBUs. It's about the flavor.