This week’s New Yorker magazine has a long and fascinating piece by Burkhard Bilger about what it calls ‘extreme beer’. This seems to be defined as beer that requires unusual and ‘extreme’ materials and equipment, or which is at the upper limits of alcohol content, or contains unusual ingredients. What is really compelling about the piece is the enthusiasm for beer and for experimenting with brewing that comes out of the story of the Dogfish Brewery. For most Brits, American beer is consistent, bland, and pretty much flavourless: Budweiser, Miller and the rest are generally what we see on supermarket shelves. But the growth of micro breweries, and of larger concerns such as The Boston Beer Company, in the US tells a different story. Craft brewing is alive and well there. Much of what is being called ‘extreme beer’ is in any case no more than a return to what beer was like before the industrialisation of brewing in the nineteenth century. While industrialisation brought a lot of advantages–hygiene, temperature control, chemistry, quality control–it also removed some of the experimentation and excitement. Extreme brewers think beer should be less predictable:
The seductions of drink are wound deep within us. Which may explain why, two years ago, when John Gasparine was walking through a forest in southern Paraguay, his thoughts turned gradually to beer. Gasparine is a businessman from Baltimore. He owns a flooring company that uses sustainably harvested wood and he sometimes goes to South America to talk to suppliers. On the trip in question, he had noticed that the local wood-carvers often used a variety called palo santo, or holy wood. It was so heavy that it sank in water, so hard and oily that it was sometimes made into ball bearings or self-lubricating bushings. It smelled as sweet as sandalwood and was said to impart its fragrance to food and drink. The South Americans used it for salad bowls, serving utensils, maté goblets, and, in at least one case, wine barrels.
Gasparine wasn’t much of a wine drinker, but he had become something of a beer geek. (His thick eyebrows, rectangular glasses, and rapid-fire patter seem ideally suited to the parsing of obscure beverages.) A few years earlier, he’d discovered a bar in downtown Baltimore called Good Love that had several unusual beers on tap. The best, he thought, were from a place called Dogfish Head, in southern Delaware. The brewery’s motto was “Off-Centered Ales for Off-Centered People.” It made everything from elegant Belgian-style ales to experimental beers brewed with fresh oysters or arctic cloudberries. Gasparine decided to send a note to the owner, Sam Calagione. Dogfish was already aging some of its beer in oak barrels. Why not try something more aromatic, like palo santo?