Let’s Get Weird: A Brief History of the Evolution of Strange Beers
From the very beginning, a willingness to try something new has been pre-requisite for enjoying a brew. At some point, early humans discovered that crushing grain and soaking them in hot water created a porridge that was sweeter than their typical fare. Eventually, one of those bowls of porridge sat out for in yeast-rich air for a while and fermented into a slightly intoxicating soup. Then someone had to be willing to put aside their preconceived notions about potentially expired porridge, suck in a deep breath, and take a swig—a gutsy move that proceeded to pay out massive dividends in the millennia to come. In the ensuing 10,000 years or so, humanity discovered hops, how to properly malt grain, and the critical role yeast plays in making the magic of fermentation happen. Clearly, times have changed. What’s remained constant is a willingness to try something weird, and that’s clear today as brewers forge bold paths with new and different styles of beer.
Like it or not, non-alcoholic beer has had a profound influence on the American palate. While alkoholfrei beers have a rich history in Europe, they didn’t find a market in the United States until prohibition was passed in 1919. Instead of shutting down, industrial brewers responded by producing beer at or below 0.5% ABV to comply with the letter of the law. The results were light, watery, and underwhelming, which is not an unfair way to describe the vast majority of today’s most popular beers.
As the craft beer revolution continues to win over palates, brewers like Athletic Brewing Co. have taken a mulligan on this style by creating a stable of flavorful non-alcohol beers. Knock back a few of their Run Wild IPAs around your next campfire, and you’ll still be ready to run wild when the sun comes up.
Photo: Jester King
The typical craft beer packs somewhere between 150 and 300 calories per 12-ounce serving. Not too long ago, this made enjoying beer with some taste and staying lean incompatible goals. That’s changed as craft brewers have embraced the wellness movement with low-calorie beers in a variety of styles, with some of the most impressive offerings drawing their inspiration from the past.
With Le Petit Prince, Austin, Texas’s Jester King Brewery delivers a 75-calorie Belgian Saison emulating the low-alcohol beers enjoyed across Europe centuries ago as safe alternatives to contaminated water. Le Petit Prince is a simple beer that shines by putting its most basic, local ingredients at the forefront: well water from the mineral-rich limestone walls of the Trinity Aquifer, noble hops, and yeast collected from the ranch the brewery sits on.
If you’re like most people, the thought of spiking a cool, refreshing beer with spicy jalapeno chili peppers just seems rude. This is why brewing a properly balanced chili beer just may be the ultimate test of a brewer’s skill. Take Fatali Four from Upright Brewing Company in Portland, Oregon. What starts as a wheat Saison, casually aging in gin and wine casks, gets spiked with Portland’s finest fatali chili peppers in the final weeks of the aging process. The result is an unexpectedly approachable combination of citrus, juniper berries, and heat.
Bourbon Barrel-Aged Beers
Bourbon has been aged in charred oak barrels in present-day Kentucky since the late 18th century. It didn’t occur to anyone to fill those discarded whiskey barrels with beer until more than 200 years later. Thank goodness they did.
The results are hefty beers high in calories, alcohol, and flavor like the Kentucky Breakfast Stout from Founder’s Brewing Company in Michigan. This imperial stout is brewed with chocolates and coffee before being transferred to oak bourbon barrels that are stashed in a cave to age for over a year. The final product emerges as a high-gravity powerhouse of flavor that’s well worth the wait.
If there weren’t already a self-proclaimed “champagne of beers,” brut IPAs would be a clear favorite for the title. Traditionally, the term brut has been used to designate the driest champagnes and sparkling wines, meaning they have very little residual sugar. Appropriately, brut IPA’s are crisp, bone dry, and exceptionally bubbly because they’re brewed with yeast typically used in champagne.
The style is relatively new, first appearing in California in 2017 before quickly spreading across the country. Caged Wisdom by Michigan’s Odd Side Ales is emblematic of a style that seems to be a deliberate step away from the New England-style IPAs that are fruit-forward and hazy. For Caged Wisdom and other brut IPAs, hops are the star of the show.
Photo: The Ringer
A coupling between the craft beer and legalization movements seems like fait accompli, but CBD beers can be surprisingly tricky to find. Despite the fact that cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-intoxicating extract in cannabis plants, beers brewed with CBD continue to face legal challenges from the federal government. For the most part, brewers have stuck to offering their CBD beers as limited-edition releases.
Portland, Oregon’s Coalition Brewing Company has bucked that trend by making a commitment to brewing CBD beers that are more than a marketing stunt. Coalition spent the better half of a year to better understand the complementary properties of hemp and hops as they developed the recipe that married them together in Two Flowers IPA, the state’s first CBD beer.
Banner photo: Coalition Brewing Company