I’m not a thrill-seeker by nature. I don’t feel “the need for speed” when I get behind the wheel of my car, for instance. Frankly, driving bores me so much I go as fast as I can only in an effort to get from Point A to Point B in as little time possible.
I’ve never been very daring, either. As a kid, I once tried riding my bike off a two-foot jump, like my friends were doing. But I chickened out at the very last (and possibly worst) moment and hit my brakes on the ramp, slid off the banana seat, and flew headlong over the handlebars. While my fearless peers were realizing the “thrill of victory,” I was discovering firsthand what the “agony of defeat” (and elbows and knees) felt like.
No, suffice to say, when it comes to outdoor adventures, I’m pretty content to stay grounded and simply wonder what it’s like to go mountain climbing (afraid of high places) or sky-diving (afraid of jumping from high places) or bungee jumping (afraid of falling to my death from high places).
On the other hand, I am occasionally interested in seeking thrills when it comes to food and drink — at least in the cases where it doesn’t require seat-belts or Band-Aids. But there are a few lines I won’t cross. For instance, I like sushi but I won’t order the live sea urchin I once saw a buddy boldly chew then bravely swallow — it clearly didn’t taste “like chicken.”
I am most courageous when it comes to beers. (Remember my recent encounter with the Italians?) In fact, one of my favorite pastimes is to wander the aisles of The Wine Source with my new-beer adviser, Jed, in search of something challenging, and he never steers me wrong. Sometimes the beers we pick will pair well with food, but often they are meant to be taken on, like The Matterhorn, simply because they’re there.
I’ve been stockpiling my acquisitions, all of which share a similarly offbeat disposition, and decided to try them last week. Some of these can be classified as “extreme” beers, which are flooding the market these days — beers that push the limits of their category, like a Double Imperial India Pale Ale (IPA). Others challenge the definition of what a beer is, combining traditional and unusual ingredients in new ways.
In either case, none of the following is intended to be swizzled at high speed like brewskies during Happy Hour. These beverages require focus and a measured pace, a steady hand, a little food, and (if you’re like me) perhaps a safety helmet. Enjoy!
Le Freak, Green Flash Brewing Company. I recently discovered this innovative San Diego-based brewery after trying (and enjoying) their Hop Head Red Ale in the spring. While that beer was merely a cross between ale styles (an IPA and a red), this one takes the idea of a hybrid to extremes — sort of like a Hummer stretch limo: completely unnecessary but delightfully decadent. Le Freak offers what the brewery calls “an ‘out of the box’ convergence of styles,” combining two completely different beers, an American Imperial IPA and a Belgian-style trippel. (NATO in a bottle?) The resulting mix pours out in a hazy, milky, light brown color, with potent citrus (grapefruit and orange) aromas and a whiff of alcohol. The IPA qualities are evident in the highly hoppy and dry-sweet flavors, while the trippel confers a pleasing mix of herbs and spices and lots of carbonation. It was a great match for a dinner of sweet Italian (turkey) sausages, baked with onions, peppers, and a zesty pasta sauce, and ears of fresh Silver Queen corn. C’est chic!
13th Anniversary Ale, Stone Brewing Company. Brewed in honor of its 13th year of operation, Stone calls this Imperial/Double Red ale its “hoppiest beer ever,” which is going some since nearly every beer I’ve had from this Escondido, California-based brewery has been extremely hoppy. And a heavy dose of hops usually means a lot of bitterness, too. Luckily, though, there’s enough malty, almost toffee-like sweetness to balance the acidity and tartness in this limited-quantity beer, which is also (surprisingly) not too dry. Unfortunately, it was the wrong choice for the “light fare” we served the night we popped the top: baked potatoes with toppings, like cheese and bacon. It was just too overpowering. I imagine that, with its treacly and sugary overtones, along with its high alcohol content (9.5%), this beer would be best enjoyed on its own, between or after meals, like a barleywine.
Local 2, Brooklyn Brewery. I have to admit I was a little surprised when this beer poured out all brown and muddy-foamy. Maybe it was the pedestrian-sounding name or the mention of wildflower honey and orange peel on the label, but I was expecting an ordinary, light-colored, fruity-fizzy beverage. Nevertheless, the sweet, sugar-and-spice aromas in this Belgian Strong Dark Ale (duh, it helps to read the whole label) were more than a little enticing, and the taste was just as nice. The honey flavor was up close and personal, but not too overpowering, tempered by the strong citrus nose and hints of caramel and chocolate. It proved a perfect match for a sandwich of cold, slightly fatty rotisserie chicken, some mayo, and a dash of salt on whole grain bread. Now I hope I can find Local 1.
Lucky 13 Ale, Lagunitas Brewing Company. Delightfully (and redundantly) labeled as a “Mondo Large Red Ale,” this celebratory beer lives up to its overbilling. Although it pours out more amber than, say, Killian’s Red (which I suspect has red dye in it), it’s nonetheless as fiery, brash (8.3% alcohol), and loud — with lots of hops floral and bitterness, and a touch of caramel sweetness — as any self-respecting redheader. Not as “extreme” or “outstanding” as some of the other hybrids in the mix, this beer was surprisingly complex and enjoyable, especially as an accompaniment to a deep-dish pepperoni pizza and a Caesar salad with added feta and toasted almonds. A lucky find, indeed.
Sah’tea, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. This was by far the most challenging beer in the bunch, and certainly one of the strangest I’ve tried in a long time. Actually, based on the ingredients used (and the brewing process, as shown in the “quick sip clips” on the Web), it’s hard to call this West-meets-East drink a “beer.” In any event, it was delicious. According to the label, this Sah’tea is based on a 1,000-year-old recipe for “Sahti,” a traditional beer from Finland that’s made from a variety of grains and flavored with juniper berries. Dogfish Head’s main grain is rye, and they break from tradition (shocker!) by adding an aromatic black chai tea (spiced with cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves) at the end of the boil. The result is somewhat akin to a German hefeweizen, though sweeter with more pronounced fruitiness and a strong, peppery spiciness that lingered through the aftertaste. It poured out in a rich, golden hazy color that though not very foamy had plenty of carbonation. Without cabbage rolls or pickled herring on hand, we opted to enjoy this as an aperitif.
Inedit, Estrella Damm. When I got an announcement from a press agent promoting “the first beer specifically created to accompany food,” I was skeptical, for several reasons. Primarily because it’s my understanding that all beer brewed (from the ancient to the present) is intended to go with a meal; quite often, in many parts of the world, beer is the only potable liquid. So I requested a free sample from the distributor and decided to put it to the test. The beer (which has a decidedly unappetizing name) arrived with an impressive press kit and highfalutin pedigree — it was purportedly developed by several internationally known chefs and sommeliers and brewed by one of Spain’s oldest breweries. So, how was it? On its own, a little less la-di-da than I would’ve thought. Technically a Belgian witbier, or white ale, it had a cloudy, golden color, with plenty of foam and bubbles, along with the typical citrus (lemon?) and wheat-grain flavors, and a hint of spices. But nothing about the taste was outstanding — that is, until we tucked into a plate of smoky ribs and barbecue sauce. Here the beer held up to its hype: the herbal, fruity qualities were a good match to the tangy, vinegary sauce, and the carbonation proved a thorough palate cleanser. Apparently, whether served with “the best cuisine,” or simple beer cuisine, it’s Damm good.
So, there you have it, a six-pack’s worth of suggestions for some new, offbeat brews. And although some beers fell in between styles and were a little hard to pair with food, the overall tasting experience was much more thrilling (and far less painful) than flying off a bike ramp.
You should be able to find all of these beers on the shelf or on tap right now. (In fact, I recently spent a very enjoyable evening with dear friends at a little out-of-the-way place called Lures, where, as luck would have it, several of these beers were on draft.) But if you see something here you want to attempt, fly like the wind, because some of these beers are in limited quantities and won’t hang around for long.
As always, let us know what you think. Have you been daring enough to try any of these extreme beers? If so, which ones do you like? Are there others on the market that you prefer? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (find it here), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.