topic: extreme beers
Why do brewers keep trying to push the international bittering units (ibus) higher and higher?
Beer is like any other segment of the world, it experiences its fads and its trends and people pushing envelopes. The hops wars were just another expression of that. Craft beer had taken off and people were falling in love with india pale ales and all the bitter hoppiness that they offer, and brewers wanted to get creative and see how far they could push the bitterness envelope before they brewed a beer that was just undrinkably bitter.
Fortunately, unlike other wars there were no casualties and I don't think anyone spent their gross national product on the war, so really, everyone won. Well, except for all of the fried taste buds. And it wasn't a war so much as friendly competition.
Hops are added during the making of beer at several points in the process. Hops added in the beginning of the boil are added for the bitterness they add to the beer, which balances the sweetness of the malts. Hops added nearer the end of the boil are added for their subtle flavours and aromas. Hops added after the boil (including dry-hopping) also add flavour and aroma. In order to amp up the hoppiness of a beer you really need to add more hops at all three stages, otherwise you will get an unbalanced product.
The human palate can only taste up to somewhere between 80 and 120 ibus, but that hasn't stopped brewers from pushing their bitterness levels higher than that. The current winner in the extreme hops category is Flying Monkeys out of Barrie Ontario. Their Alpha-Fornication was a whopping 13.3% abv and they claim it had 2500 ibus. It was brewed specially for Ontario Craft Beer Week in 2011. Second place goes to Arbour from the UK for their 2012 Double Black IPA at 2012 ibus and Mikkeller from Denmark for their Hop Juice 2007, with 2007 ibus.
Why brew a beer that goes so far beyond what a human can taste? Hopefully along the way you make some great discoveries on other aspects of brewing. In trying to make the hoppiest, some of the experimentation is bound to lead to new techniques, new ways to pull flavour out of the hops and new hop combinations. Do I want to drink a 2500 ibu beer? Not really. Will I try it for fun? Of course I will! And then I will sit back and wait for the beer that follows - the one that all that research and experimentation has given birth to. Competitions like these are fun to watch, but also provide a showcase for the versatility and complexity of beer.
Also worth noting is that ibu measurements are not always accurate. Bittering units are measured through the use of a spectrophotometer or can be calculated by a mathematical formula based on the recipe and hops being used. The latter may not be an accurate representation of ibus. The bitterness comes from the alpha acids in the hops, but how bitter a beer tastes is more than just an ibu measurement. If there are fewers malts to balance the hops, then the beer will taste more bitter. If there is a lot of malt sweetness then you can add more hops without the resulting beer tasting too bitter. So there is a bit of an arbitrary nature to ibus and beer bitterness.
Here's a list of a few extreme hopped beers that you can usually find in Vancouver:
Southern Tier Unearthly Imperial IPA - 153 ibus
BrewDog Hardcore IPA - 150 ibus
Lagunitas Hop Stoopid - 102 ibus
Green Flash Palate Wrecker - 100 ibus
Hopworks Organic Ace of Spades - 100 ibus
Ninkasi Tricerahops - 100 ibus
Driftwood's Fat Tug - 80 ibus
Central City's Red Racer IPA - 80 ibus
If you are travelling and manage to find these extremely hoppy beers, pick one up for yourself and get one for me too, okay?
Dogfish head's 120 minute IPA - 120 ibus
Russian River Pliny the Elder - who knows? but it is hoppy!
There was also an alcohol by volume war between BrewDog Brewery out of Scotland and German brewery, Kleinbrauerei Schorschbrau. Once upon a time (1980) the strongest beer in the world was 14%. Jump ahead to mostly modern times and Sam Adams held the title for a while with its "Utopias", at 27% and a hefty price tag of upwards of $200 for a 750 ml bottle. Jump again to 2008 and Schorschbrau brews a 31% beer, but doesn't rule the roost for long. In 2009 BrewDog's Tactical Nuclear Penguin debuted at 32%. I had the great fortune to try this beer, which retailed in Canada at $100 per bottle, at a beer tasting. If you can picture beer flavoured sherry, that pretty much summed up what it tasted like. It was definitely beer, definitely boozey, and if you swilled it around in a snifter, it stuck to the sides like a sherry would.
You brew high alcohol beers by freezing the water out of them and then re-fermentating so that the alcohol percentages get higher as the volume gets smaller.
Schorschbrau, saw BrewDog's 32% and raised them 40% with their Schorschbock. Brewdog retaliated with Sink the Bismarck at 41%, which was an IPA. Schorschbock came back with a 44% beer. BrewDog jumped ahead again with a belgian blonde ale, The End of History at 55% (which beer had only 12 bottles commercially available, presented in a taxidermied rodent - who said brewers have no sense of humour? - and retailed for 700 British pounds, and sold out in 30 minutes). Schorschbock came back in October 2011 with their Finis Coronat Opus at 57.7%, and finally Brewmeister (also out of Scotland) who in October 2012 entered their Armageddon into the fray at 65%. The press that followed the war gave craft brewing a great opportunity to showcase the fun of craft brewing, the personalities of the brewers and the craftmanship involved in going where no one had gone before even if there was no profit in it.
I think the current trend in brewing has moved away from extreme beers. Instead we have brewers looking outside the box for the "next big thing" and I think that will benefit craft beer immensely in the long run.
Brewers are taking old and rarer beer styles and brewing them anew - some with a modern twist, some just as the old recipe was written. This resurgence of styles benefits everyone as brewers get to try their magic on new to us all territory, use different yeasts and grains, and all of the consumers get to discover styles of beer that they love. One example of this is Parallel 49's biere de garde. Who had ever heard of a biere de garde before they brewed their very amusingly named Humphrey Biere de Garde? Talk about your crowd pleasing beers. I was using this one as a gateway beer when out with a group of people and asked for a recommendation of what to drink. Biere de Gardes are strong pale ales traditionally brewed in France. They were originally brewed in farmhouses during the winter and spring, much like a saison. They tend to be copper or golden in colour and are matured in a cellar for a period of time after bottling. Humphrey was an easy drinking, easy food pairing beer that pleased my beer geek and neophyte friends alike. Brown ales, sour ales, and steam ales are all making a come back.
Driftwood Brewing has just released their Gose-uh, which is in the Gose style that is rarely ever seen in these parts of the world. It is a traditional wheat beer brewed in Germany. It was first brewed in the early 16th century in the town of Goslar where the style gets it’s name. Gose became so popular in Leipzig, that local breweries started to make it themselves. Originally, Gose was spontaneously-fermented, however brewers worked out how to achieve the same effect by using a combination of top-fermenting yeast and lacto bacillus bacteria and when the beer was filled into the characteristic long-necked bottles (illustrated on Driftwood's label) the beer began a secondary fermentation where a plug of yeast would rise up the neck and naturally seal the bottle. Driftwood's version of Gose is brewed in a very traditional method (without the yeast plug) and presents as dry, tart, effervesent and citrusy. It is an amazing refresher on a hot summer’s day!
Also single-hopping a brew has become popular. In this way a brewer can showcase the flavour of one hop rather than blending them for more subtle flavours. Citra and mosaic are the hops belles of the ball these days and should be quite easy to find at a cask night or seasonal offering.