Cutting-edge craft beer transforms old traditions into new forms
by Kevin J. Gray
The best craft brews have always been a marriage of deep traditions and cutting-edge techniques and styles. Below are four brewing trends that represent new takes on old traditions.
Modern brewers have rediscovered wooden barrels. The practice of aging beer in wood was the norm from brewing’s inception until the mid-20th century when, with the advent of the stainless steel keg, wooden barrel usage declined precipitously. However, there has been a resurgence of this technique as a way to add complexity to craft beer.
Aging beers in oak barrels imparts the wood’s toasted or charred flavors. In a modern twist, many barrel-aged beers mature in spent spirits barrels, a technique that melds the complexities of ales with liquors (generally bourbon, but sometimes other whiskey types). By federal law, American spirit barrels can only be used once for liquor, so distilleries had a surplus of spent barrels. Craft brewers looking to differentiate their products noted this surplus and filled the barrels with beer.
Brewers generally use big beers with high alcohol contents and dominant flavors (IPAs, imperial stouts, and barleywines) for their barrel-aged offerings because these beers stand up to the equally intense liquor flavors. Some of the more popular barrel-aged beers brewed regionally include Goose Island Bourbon-Barrel Stout, Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale.
Sour and wild ales are the Limburger cheeses of the brewing world — rich, interesting and often stinky. Complex ales are not for the faint of palate. These beers are intensely organic products, the by-products of wild “contaminants” that most mainstream brewers fight to keep out of their products. For centuries, Belgian and French brewers had been the sole creators of lambics, gueuzes, saisons and Flemish sour ales. In recent years, however, American brewers have begun to challenge Europe’s exclusivity.
The bacteria and wild yeasts used to create sour ales produce tart flavors that, while challenging, can be refreshing. The bacteria sour the beers, in much the same way that wines turn to vinegar, while the Brettanomyces yeast adds funky, dark notes reminiscent of a barnyard. This may sound disgusting but a growing number of craft beer brewers and drinkers disagree. In the early 2000s, the Great American Beer Festival showcased just 15 American sour ales. Last year, it skyrocketed to 119. Among those are the beers of Jolly Pumpkin, brewed in nearby Dexter, Mich. Try their La Roja or Bam Bière.
In a response to the over-the-top, 10+ percent alcohol by volume extreme beer movement of the last few years, many craft brewers are moving towards session beers. Session beers are full-flavored beers with a low to moderate alcohol content, generally between 4.5 percent and 5 percent ABV. BeerAdvocate.com, a source for all things craft beer, explains: “The purpose of a session beer is to allow a beer drinker to have multiple beers within a reasonable time period or session, without overwhelming the senses or reaching inappropriate levels of intoxication.”
As with beers aged in wood and sour ales, session beers are not a completely novel concept. Ohioans of a certain age may recall “three-two beer,” the 3.2 percent alcohol beer consumed by 18 year-olds after the drinking age was raised to 21.
What is different about craft brewed session beers, however, is the focus on flavor. The best American session beers are delicate balances of hops and malt, without either flavor dominating. These beers are more reminiscent of the British Bitters and Milds that, while capping out at 3 to 4 percent ABV, are delicious, flavorful beers. Stone Levitation (4.4 percent ABV), brewed in California but available nationally, and Goose Island Honker’s Ale (4.2 percent ABV), out of Chicago, are two beer geek session staples.
Craft Brew in a Can
The ultimate old-becoming-new scenario is craft beer in cans. Nearly a decade ago, Oskar Blues, a Colorado brewery, bucked craft brewing tradition by daring to can craft beer. Unlike the can liners of your grandfather’s beers, which gave beer a metallic tinge, the water-based linings championed by Oskar Blues keep beers fresher, without the risk of skunky flavors that light-struck bottles suffer.
Oskar Blues once fought an uphill battle evangelizing for canned beer acceptance, but their dogged efforts paid off. Today, many craft brewers are converts, including Buckbean Brewing, a Nevada brewery that hosts CANFEST, the beer festival exclusively for canned craft beers. Canning brings many benefits to the brewer and the consumer, including an increased use of recycled materials, lower transportation costs and the ability to bring good beer to places where bottles are usually verboten.
Canned craft beers are consuming more shelf space than ever. In Ohio, look for beers from 21st Amendment, Avery and Anderson Valley.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.