Thursday, October 23, 2008
Ron Jeffries put it best when he said that even in Michigan, people are doing things with wild sour beers.
That's not to discount breweries in the Wolverine State, as Bell's, Michigan Brewing and Jeffries' own Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales each add something special to the beer world. But when you think of Michigan - home of rugged workers, time-tested American cars and smash mouth football (in most years) - it's not the first place you'd think of as an exotic beer emporium.
Yet, Jeffries' point was well taken: At the recent Great American Beer Festival, California, Colorado and Dogfish Head Brewing clearly no longer held the monopoly on exotic brews. Cambridge Brewing of Massachusetts dazzled with its experimental sours and barleywines. A pizza pub from Arkansas (Vino's) served a Christmas ale that may redefine the style. The silver medal for sour ales went to a brewery (Upstream) from Nebraska, for pete's sake.
And the exotic kept getting just a little, well, exoticker. Russian River Brewing, whose barrel-fermented, cherry-soaked Supplication had for a while served as the peak of the sour beer style, overshadowed its monster with a new creation, Consecration, aged in Cabernet barrels with 33 pounds of currants. (This will be available in Colorado liquor stores by March, brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo said.)
Dogfish Head, no longer content with breaking new barriers in hoppiness, is spending more time developing ancient recipes discovered by university archaeology professors. Take the Theobroma, an ancient Aztec recipe brewed with chiles, annetto seed, honey, cocoa nibs and cocoa powder. Sweet, slightly punchy on the back taste, absolutely unique.
"What I love is, (exotic) is subjective," Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione said at brewers' talk at the festival. "You've got to remember that 20 years ago, Anchor Steam was an extreme beer."
It's not hard now to walk into a store and find a quadruple Belgian or oak-aged imperial stout. What once was exotic in its rareness is now becoming exotic and yet accessible.
Some breweries have their rare beers that don't get sold with the rest. (If somebody finds Deschutes' sour brown The Dissident somewhere in the Denver area, I beg you to write me.) Other breweries are dedicated only to exotic beers.
That's the theory under which Jeffries founded Jolly Pumpkin in 2004. A man who used to brew a different wheat beer to be enjoyed with each pizza that was served at a pub where he used to work, he decided to be the first U.S. brewery to age 100 percent of its products in oak.
Its beers (available at a select number of Colorado liquor stores), like the tenderly spicy Fuego del Otono, don't shock the palate as much as they demand you to think about their complexity. And where there was nothing five years ago, there is now a determination to try what hasn't been tried. Jeffries admitted that he wakes up every day thinking of a new beer style.
So where does this trend, this experimentation, end? Talking to Jeffries, to Cilurzo, to Calagione, it doesn't.
"I don't think there's a lot off the top of my head I wouldn't consider," Jeffries said.
And remember, this is coming not from a Belgian, but from a guy who lives in Michigan.