Extreme Beer

I blame my current state of beer obsession on Christmas of 1995 when I bought my partner a beer kit as a present.

It somehow took hold and made beer a part of the family. We now have two converted freezers full of craft beer and kegs of homebrew.

Rod (my partner) has a “Brewing Sculpture”, which is a four-foot tall, three-burner, propane-fired piece of brewing magnificence that turns lowly malted barley into an elixir of delight… sometimes.

The more you brew, the more you realize your limitations as a homebrewer.

You learn that it’s probably not good to bottle your beer when someone else is frying bacon and you realize what a dirty, dirty place your kitchen really is.

Commercial breweries are sterile places with concrete floors. They don’t ferment their beer in a dusty basement alongside the camping gear.

Despite the hurdles faced by homebrewers, creating extreme beers is well within their power. The limitations are time, your significant other and the amount of “crazy” you have in you.

Of course, if your idea of a good beer recipe is malt, rhubarb, crushed ants, sorrel and lemon rind, you might get a few stinkers along the way.

But, I have tasted some delicious extreme beers—chili-chocolate stouts, an exotic rose petal mead and a surprisingly drinkable seaweed, lactic acid, wheat beer brewed by a beer aficionado who works at the Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau.

In terms of alcohol content, there are a few historic “extreme” beers.

My chosen monarch among the classics is barleywine. This is one of the biggest beer styles out there, with alcohol levels that hover in the wine realm, hence the name.

Barleywine is the beer-equivalent of an after-dinner port. It isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, a session beer.

(Even if you have just finished the epic bike ride from Whitehorse to Skagway, and it is Cinco de Mayo, and barleywine is on special at the Skagway Brewing Co…)

Barleywines ring in at anywhere from eight to 12 percent alcohol by volume (abv).

At the high-alcohol end, they are definite sippers. Even people who don’t really like beer might be able to appreciate the malty sweetness and warming alcohol effect of this monster beer.

The American versions tend to be hopped-up versions of the British style.

Try North Coast Brewing Co.’s Old Stock Ale for an example of the British style, and Avery Brewing Co.’s Hog Heaven for an American-style barleywine. Both are available at liquor stores in Alaska.

Barleywine-type beer has been around since the time of the Vikings.

Farmhouse brewers in England would brew several beers from one mash (the mixture of malted barley and water). Once water is added to the cracked malted barley, the enzymes go to work converting the starch to fermentable sugar.

When you pour more water through the mash after the enzymes have done their business, the first liquid you tap off has a lot of fermentable sugar and will ferment a higher alcohol beer—the barleywine.

The brewers would keep running water through the mash until the last batch had a low sugar content and would ferment to a slightly alcoholic beverage “suitable” for children to drink.

Barleywine has another contender in the realm of extreme historic beers: Russian Imperial Stout.

It packs the same alcoholic punch and has a similar malt backbone, but gets its character from the addition of dark roasted malts to give the beer an almost burnt flavour with a drying bitterness from the black malts.

Imperial stout was first brewed in the 18th century by a brewery in London, England, for export to the Baltic countries. It was particularly popular in the court of Catherine the Great, hence the name.

This style of beer is difficult to find in Canada, but has been embraced by American craft breweries.

For a real kick in the teeth, try The Abyss, from Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon.

This beer has a wax-encased cap and a distressed terra cotta-coloured label. It clocks in at 11 percent abv and has a portion of the beer aged in oak.

If you like your coffee black and sludgy, this is probably the beer for you.

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