The beer landscape is always changing in San Diego. Here’s a look at some extreme brews from near and far.
Going to extremes
What makes for boundary-pushing brew?
What’s an extreme beer? There’s no single definition, but most brews in this category have elevated levels of alcohol, unusual ingredients or both.
One example: End of History (55 percent alcohol by volume), a whiskey-like creation from Scotland’s BrewDog.
Another: Pappy Barrel 4 from Rancho Bernardo’s Abnormal Beer. Aged two years in Pappy Van Winkle (high-end bourbon) barrels, this imperial stout has been dosed with Tahitian vanilla beans and Jamaican Blue Mountain Mostra Coffee.
“An extreme beer, to me, takes modern styles of beer and elevates them past what is expected of that style,” says Derek Gallanosa, Abnormal’s head brewer.
Since “extreme” is in the eye of the beer-holder, consider Jeff Wiederkehr’s definition. Co-founder and director of brewing operations at El Cajon’s Burning Beard, Wiederkehr takes obscure beer styles, like the salty and tart gose, and crafts a bright update.
“That’s a historical extreme beer,” he says.
Unusual flavors. Unusual potency. Unusual styles. Ordinary ingredients pushed to extraordinary limits.
“Extreme beer” means all this and more.
What it shouldn’t mean: beers that rely on tongue-curling levels of bitterness. While many Alpine Beer ales push hops to the limit, co-founder Pat McIlhenney insists that’s not his goal.
“The balance between the sweet and the bitter,” he says, “is the true test of the beer.”
Extreme beers, Gallanosa notes, are not strange for the sake of strangeness. Instead, brewers seek to explore new and unexpected heights.
“Extreme beers are tough to produce,” he says, “but the liquid art that comes out at the end makes every brewer say, ‘Well, that was worth it.’”
Beer me, pro
Hard-core athletes share their favorite brews
Extreme athletes need fuel, preferably wrapped in a refreshing, delicious package. Did someone say “beer”?
Athletes: Ashley Gibson, 30, and Travis Gibson, 32, San Diego
Event: This wife-and-husband team loves ultra-marathons, including the 33-mile Holcomb Valley Trail Run at Big Bear.
Beers: “We love all the Alpine ones - Windows Up is one of our favorites, and we had Nelson when up in Alpine for one of our runs. It was nice and fresh,” Ashley says. “Another favorite is Council Brewing. They have what are arguably the best collection of sours in San Diego.”
Athlete: Mike Hervey, 26, Ocean Beach
Event: Long-distance hiking. Completed the 2,659-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2013; now trekking the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail.
Beers: “I like IPAs. Bear Republic Racer 5 is one of my go-tos. And anything from AleSmith is good. I try to keep it local.”
Athlete: Bucky Lasek, 44, Encinitas
Event: Vert skateboarding, riding on a ramp or half-pipe. Winner of 12 X Games medals.
Beer: “I’m gluten-intolerant. There are some pretty good beers that are gluten-free - Budweiser makes a pretty good one, Redbridge. Omission. And I find that Stella and Tecate don’t upset my stomach.”
Do Me a Flavor
Extreme beers to cheers
WARNING: If your favorite beer is a straw-colored, wispy, mildly hopped lager, turn back now. Extreme beers were made to dope-slap your taste buds and rock your mug.
Five brewed and rude examples:
Beer: Cuvee de Tomme
Brewery: The Lost Abbey, San Marcos
Alcohol by volume: 11 percent
Why it’s extreme: Is there an archaeologist in the house? There are so many layers here - sour cherries, raisins, prunes, vanilla, bourbon, molasses - it would take days to excavate the depths. This complex brown ale helped turn its brewer, Tomme Arthur, into a craft beer celebrity.
Beer: Exponential Hoppiness
Brewery: Alpine Beer, Alpine
Alcohol by volume: 11 percent
Why it’s extreme: While brewing this mighty double IPA, Alpine’s Pat McIlhenney adds hops six different times - each time doubling the previous amount. After this fermentation process, he runs the beer through a 6-foot-by-3-foot sack stuffed with more hops.
Exponential’s hop presence is formidable - gee, you think? - yet rises from a solid malt base. “The balance between the sweet and the bitter,” McIlhenney says, “is the true test of the beer.”
This rare beer is sometimes brewed in the summer and always before the Super Bowl.
Beer: Tusk & Grain Wee Heavy
Brewery: Saint Archer, Miramar
Alcohol by volume: 11.32 percent
Why it’s extreme: A rich, malty Scottish style, wee heavies can descend into sticky booziness when aged in bourbon barrels. Tusk & Grain avoids teetering into gooey sweetness by balancing on three legs - sour mash, toasted hazelnuts and cacao nibs. Released this March in a limited edition, this wee heavy is found in better grog shops and Saint Archer’s tasting room.
Brewery: Stone Brewing, Escondido
Alcohol by volume: 10.5 percent
Why it’s extreme: Burn, baby, burn. This oddity blends Arrogant Bastard Ale, Double Bastard Ale and Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale, throws all this ‘tude into Kentucky bourbon barrels, then laces it with chili peppers. (The beer’s original version, in 2010, used peppers from Stone co-founder Greg Koch’s garden.) Take a sip and you’ll find layers of sweet malts and bracing hops - if you can stand the heat.
Beer: Uni Stout
Brewery: Pariah Brewing, San Diego
Alcohol by volume: 5.4 percent
Why it’s extreme: While relatively low in alcohol, Uni is high on the extreme beer scale. Besides the usual dark malts, this stout is brewed with sea salt, seaweed and - I am not kidding - uni, or sea urchin. The team at Pariah had at least two inspirations: a.) Britain’s briny oyster stouts, and b.) San Diego’s vigorous trade in sea urchin roe.
Uni Stout delivers notes of French roast and baker’s chocolate, backed by a delightful creaminess plus a splash of sea spray.