Saturday, February 28, 2009

Extreme Beer Fest 2009

Let me begin with an off-color joke by John Cleese.

Q: How is American beer like making love in a canoe?

A: They're both f***ing close to water.

While this is true of the vast majority of American beer made by a few corporate mega-breweries, the brewers at last weekend's Extreme Beer Fest in Boston push the limits of style and flavor.

When I say Extreme Beer Fest, you may imagine funnel hats, a can crunching contest, and a beer-lubricated slip-and-slide, but don't be alarmed. At this annual showcase of the creative and experimental, extreme describes the beer, not the consumption. The fest is hosted by the Alström brothers, founders of BeerAdvocate, a magazine and website featuring beer reviews and articles about homebrewing, beer styles, and the business and history of brewing. Dozens of breweries from around the country come to offer samples of their least conventional products. The evening features panel discussions where brewers speak about their craft, hearty snacks provided by local restaurants, and an atmosphere of camaraderie among beer connoisseurs who, like their foodie counterparts, are in pursuit of thoughtful, authentic flavors.

In previous years, I've taken a commando approach. I printed the list of available beers and highlighted my priorities, color coding my top ten and backups. I lined up early and mapped a route through the booths. One year, I made a beeline to Allagash, where I sampled the last ounces of a nearly extinct ale barrel-aged with wild Maine strawberries. I felt elite. I carried a golf pencil in my pocket and rated the beers, taking notes on smell, flavor, and mouthfeel. Toward the end of the evening my notes became less systematic and harder to decipher ("raisin dragon" is scrawled diagonally across a page).

This year I relaxed. I've been to enough festivals that I've got a good handle on beer styles, and I'm familiar with the flagship extreme beers: Dogfish Head's 120 Minute IPA, Sam Adams' Utopias, double and triple-IPAs, imperial stouts, ales aged in wine or whisky barrels. This year's list included many terrific beers I'd tried before and some intriguing new ones, but few I felt I absolutely must try. My goals were to sample some new breweries, take good pictures, and pace myself so I wouldn't have a headache on Sunday. I'm sure I missed out on some good ones, but of the beers I tried, these were memorable:

Reunion Saison
American Flatbread (VT)
The 2009 edition of Winter Saison made with green & pink peppercorns
Wheaty, crisp, with just a hint of bite. My favorite of the night.

Kentucky Breakfast Stout
Founders Brewing Co. (MI)
Bourbon Barrel Aged Chocolate Coffee Stout
Oh my. Flavors of chocolate milk, espresso, licorice, and ginger. Rich without being heavy. I regret missing out on the Canadian Breakfast Stout, aged in maple syrup barrels. Unfortunately, Founders is not available north of Boston.

Morimoto Soba Ale
Rogue Ales (OR)
Specialty Ale made with buckwheat
I haven't understood the hype about Rogue, but I liked this beer, which has a subtle nutty flavor like 12-grain bread. Morimoto would be nice with pasta or spicy tomato foods.

Peanut Butter & Jelly
Short's Brewing Co. (MI)
This beer really tasted like bread and peanut butter, with an aftertaste of grape jelly. How did they do that? Did they just drop sandwiches into the fermenting vessel? I would imagine that a little of this goes a long way, but 10 points for creativity and execution. People were also raving about their s'mores beer, which I didn't try because it came with non-vegan marshmallows on top (Wilbur's hooves, you know).

As always, the offerings from Allagash and Dogfish Head were outstanding, but I didn't try anything new besides the BA Select, which isn't available in the real world. BeerAdvocate also hosts a Belgian Beer Fest in the fall, and they've featured German beer and lagers at other events. At the panel discussion there was mention of a New England Beer Fest, which would be a great opportunity to showcase the variety and quality of Maine-brewed beers.

Our pictures didn't turn out well because it was dark and people kept moving, and it seemed impractical to bring a tripod. You can see the rest of them in this gallery.


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