As a homebrewer, I have been known to ‘mix it up.’ Unusual ingredients, challenging techniques, aberrant flavors. One example is my recipe using Syrah grapes, prickly pear fruit and pumpkin, with wild yeast and bacteria. I enjoy tasting beers brewed with a spirit of adventure.
In the not too distant past, I would hunt down and collect rare beers. This involved calling stores to have them set aside bottles and cases of limited edition beers. On cross-country road trips, I would arrange my travel plans around brewery growler fill schedules whenever possible. One reward of these journeys was the occasional “pilot brew.” With these homebrew-volume batches, brewers feel free to explore, improvise and get a little dangerous. They test possible new additions to their lineup and have fun like any casual homebrewer.
I no longer pursue specialty brews with the same doggedness as in the past. This is because something wonderful has happened. Practically everybody is making specialty brews. Everybody wants to collaborate with everybody else. Large scale craft breweries enjoy the same camaraderie and experimentation of homebrew clubs.
Even if I devoted every waking hour of my life to the search for new and fascinating beers, I would not be able to keep up. The fact that there is too much of such a good thing isn’t a bad thing. It means that even if YOU scour the shelves and call in favors and accumulate every precious beer you desire, there will always be something amazing left over for ME.
One of the most interesting finds of the past few months was La Citrueille Celeste De Citracado, a collaboration by Stone, Elysian and The Bruery. It was made with pumpkin, yams, toasted fenugreek, lemon verbena and birch bark and showed a strong herbal and resin character with notes of chicory and coffee. Not at all subtle, but fascinating.
Back in 2004, one of the first collaborative beers I ever purchased that mixed it up was the 2004 Symposium Ale. This was the product of three of my all-time favorite breweries: Stone, AleSmith, and Port Brewing. On a trip to the original Stone Brewery I brought home a case to cellar and to share, and one bottle remains. I opened a bottle a few months ago and found that it had been aging quite well, so the final bottle has a long rest ahead of it before it will be opened.
A different type of collaboration can be found in Pangaea. This occasional release from Dogfish Head was designed to “bring the continents back together” and consists of several far-flung ingredients including crystallized ginger from Australia, water from Antarctica, basmati rice from Asia, muscavado sugar from Africa, quinoa from South America, European yeast and North American maize.
Mentioning oak-aged beers used to prompt a look of perplexity, but today they can be found in any halfway decent beer store. Wisconsin’s Tyranena (a personal favorite) has a series called Brewers Gone Wild, in which several beers in the series are aged in Bourbon, Rye or Brandy barrels. Jolly Pumpkin in Michigan puts every one of its beers through a secondary fermentation in oak barrels with wild yeast.
A notable recent discovery is Epic Brewing Company in Salt Lake City, Utah. Anybody willing to do the paperwork involved in producing a 10.7% ABV beer in Utah must have a beautiful way of looking at the world. Brainless On Peaches (Release #9) is a Belgian style ale fermented with peaches and aged in Chardonnay barrels. This beer has some wild ale notes but shows more body than the aroma suggests. Other notes include peach, strawberry, banana, watermelon rind and spice.
These are just a few examples of how brewers have been mixing it up. I have been thrilled to see how the exception has become the rule. Limited editions, experiments and collaborations abound. My fondest wish for the future is that some beer archaeologist trying to ‘mix it up’ will attempt a faithful recreation of a long-lost beer style — the American Light Lager.
Article and Photo by Thomas Ale Johnson
Originally Published in Arizona Vines and Wines Summer 2012 Issue