“Every great action is extreme.”
—Duc de La Rochefoucauld
Two decades ago, as the notion of localized craft brewing began to make long overdue sense to beer-loving Americans who had been denied choice for so very long, the act of microbrewing was itself considered revolutionary and profoundly extremist.
After all, there was plenty of Budweiser on store shelves, and constructive feedback came in the form of, “Why isn’t ‘our beer’ good enough for you, you Commie dilettante?”
While innovation always was the watchword of our craft-brewing pioneers, the stylistic vocabulary of beer and brewing — something that wasn’t codified until the 1970s — was almost entirely inherited from Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the other European brewing nations where brewing diversity had perversely persisted in the face of modern mass-market pressures.
The new generation of American beer enthusiasts learned the differences between Doppelbock and Oud Bruin, compared 80-Shilling to Hefe-Weizen, and explored the clean, crisp Central European lager character versus the breathtakingly eclectic range of ale brewed in Belgium. Most micros brewed “to style.”
Today, American craft brewers are responsible for an ever-widening proliferation of stylistic categories and sub-categories. Ingredients ranging from locally roasted coffee to hot Southwestern peppers to indigenous shrubbery are deployed to expand the range of delights awaiting the restless palate of the aficionado.
The adjective “imperial,” once used solely in conjunction with “stout” to imply black nectar of intense viscosity and high alcohol content, now is freely applied to “extreme” microbrews that borrow old stylistic imagery and pump it full of new vigor. You’ll see “imperial” or “double” used to describe strong and expressive India Pale Ale, Red Ale and even the occasional Oktoberfest.
They’re “traditional,” but in an exclusively American sense. That’s the beauty of innovation.
Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. He writes about beer for Food & Dining magazine. Visit www.potablecurmudgeon.com for more beer.