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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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Extreme beer: Wisconsin brewers go way beyond lager
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Credit:Eric Tadsen

Normally, I would not get up early on a Saturday, pile into my car and drive 30 miles through the freezing rain just for a beer.

Extreme beers, however, call for extreme measures.

And so it is that I find myself at Vintage Liquor in Black Earth, purchasing four bottles of Thermo Refur, made by Spring Green brewer Furthermore. These might be among the last few bottles in existence. Furthermore produced only one batch of Thermo Refur, and that was about two years ago.

"It was extreme enough that the brewery I work with asked me not to make it again," Furthermore owner and brewmaster Aran Madden told me the day before. "I was bringing in too many wild yeasts that for years were thought of as contaminants."

That issue aside, there just might not be a huge market for a beer made from red beets and black pepper that comes in at 40 IBUs. (That stands for International Bittering Units and is a function of the hops used during brewing. A 40 is pretty hoppy - about as bitter as an India Pale Ale. American light lagers come in at 10 to 15.) I like it, but my wife, who loves a good IPA, takes one sip of the Thermo Refur, winces and returns my glass. "It's like someone burned down a sugar beet factory in my mouth," she mutters.

Her reaction likely wouldn't surprise or faze Madden. "We get plenty of people who say, man, I really love this particular beer of yours, and God, I hate that other one," he told me. "If you're going to be adventurous, you have to be willing to alienate some of the drinkers."

And adventurousness is what it's all about in the small but lively world of extreme beer.

What qualifies a beer as "extreme" is hard to pin down precisely. Simply put, it refers to any beer that sits outside the ordinary parameters of popular taste, whether because of alcohol content, ingredients or the production process. Of course, because popular taste keeps changing, so too does what's considered extreme.

"Twenty-five years ago, this would have been off-the-charts extreme," Capital Brewery brewmaster Kirby Nelson tells me, raising a glass of his new Manoomator, a Doppelbock made with wild rice. "Back then, if I'd taken this to a typical beer account, they'd have looked at me like I was nuts. But times have changed in the beer world, and now this isn't really considered an extreme beer."

Americans' taste for beer took a serious hit early last century, thanks to Prohibition, which shut down thousands of small breweries across the country. By the time the Noble Experiment ended, many people had gotten used to the sweetness of soft drinks. The era of mass production was in full swing at that point, and the new big beer companies focused on formulating mild lagers that would appeal to the widest audience.

It wasn't until the craft beer movement took hold in the 1970s that things began to change. By the '90s, Sam Adams had released its 17.5 % alcohol-by-volume Triple Bock (whose description was the first documented instance of the term "extreme beer"), and Dogfish Head - a legendarily experimental Delaware brewery - was using reconstructed recipes from before the birth of Christ to produce ales like its Midas Touch Golden Elixir, made with grapes, honey and saffron.

Dogfish Head is the exception that proves the rule, though. Extreme beers are gaining popularity, but they're difficult to make commercially. Odd ingredients can be expensive or hard to source, and even making a fairly standard style of beer with a super-high alcohol content can require a lot more grain, hops, yeast and time. Some extreme beers also have to sit in the tank a bit longer, taking up space that could be used to brew a known, reliable seller.

For example, in 2008 Nelson and Great Dane brewmaster Rob LoBreglio set out to brew the biggest beer ever made only from barley, hops, water and yeast - the four traditional ingredients mandated by the Reinheitsgebot German Purity Law of 1516. After a work-intensive five-day initial brewing process, the brewers expected their experiment would have to ferment for about six months before it was ready.

Instead, the Belgian Barleywine - the strongest beer the Great Dane had ever released, at 13.75 % ABV - took 14 months before it appeared on tap. It was also expensive, at $5 for half a brandy snifter. Making it took more than six times the malt that goes into a batch of the Dane's Landmark Lite lager, and the yeast "cost a fortune," Nelson says. And all this for a beer he describes as good but "so intense, the mouthfeel on it was almost like a moderate syrup."

The Belgian Barleywine may make a return appearance, but generally, it's this kind of investment that makes brewing extreme beer on a massive scale unfeasible. There's little incentive for a big corporation to produce a beer that's harder and more expensive to make and that fewer people will be interested in drinking.

"I think home brewers can more easily get to these styles because we don't have an ROI [return on investment] to get to," Jeff Scanlan tells me. Scanlan is president of the Sun Prairie Wort Hogs home brew club. This year, he won "Highest-Scoring High-Gravity Beer" at the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild Badger Brew-Off for his Bitterman American barleywine. "Since I'm brewing for home consumption, it's a moot point. The amount I'm willing to spend is really only limited by my own desires."

We meet at the Malt House on East Washington, where owner Bill Rogers, a former president of the guild, keeps a revolving selection of reasonably extreme beers on tap, such as the Belgian Duchesse de Bourgogne red ale (not that strong, but richly fruity) or the Austrian Samichlaus, $10 a glass and, at 14% alcohol-by-volume, one of the most potent lagers on earth. Scanlan estimates the Bitterman at 8.66 % ABV and more than 100 IBUs.

I like it. The bitterness is balanced by a nice maltiness, though it does sting my tongue, and I'm feeling woozy after just a small glass. This is not what enthusiasts call a "session beer," a beer you could safely plan on having more than one of.

"If you sat down and drank two or three pints of an extreme beer, you might not be walking well," Scanlan says. He cautions against overconsumption for more esoteric reasons, as well. "I also think it can deaden the palate. Stronger beers are meant to be savored; they're more complex." (He very graciously sends his last bottle home with me, and savor it I do.)

Since the most common type of extreme beer is the very, very strong kind, savorability is something of a refrain among the brewers I talk to. "You could look at extreme beer from a couple angles. One might be as an alcohol-delivery vehicle," says Ted Gisske, a home brewer in Daleyville. "Some people make what is essentially extraordinarily tasteless beer with a high alcohol content, and the point is to get drunk."

The trick is to make a beer with a high alcohol content that tastes good. Gisske did it with a brew called Maggie - named for Margaret Thatcher, "brutal, bitter and British," he jokes - a heavily hopped English Imperial IPA that has been on tap at the Grumpy Troll brewpub in Mount Horeb for about four years. The brewmaster there liked it enough to ask Gisske for the recipe.

I warm to her quickly, but Maggie too scalds my tongue, and I'm relieved my wife has joined us for lunch so she can drive me home. (The beer is 9.9% ABV; the pre"Grumpy Troll recipe was 12 %.)

Both Scanlan and Gisske epitomize the best kind of extreme brewer: Though loath to sacrifice drinkability, they're awfully interested in seeing what they can do just for the sake of it.

"I'm an anarchist; I don't ever make the same recipe twice," Gisske says. "I'm not really looking for consistency. I'm more interested in exploring. Of course, if you want to do it commercially, you have to brew for consistency."

A commitment to consistency, however, does not prevent one from experimenting. At Vintage Brewing Co., a brewpub on Madison's west side that opened in 2009, Scott Manning is doing his level best to keep things simultaneously interesting and saleable.

"I think because we entered in kind of late, and because Madison is already versed in so many great beer styles and there are a lot of brewers here who do good traditional styles, it's like we had a duty to be interesting," Manning says.

A Wisconsin native who honed his craft on the West Coast before returning here to join his brother and cousin in the new business, the brewmaster initially set out to "come up with some really solid beers and let people know we know how to brew flavors they can relate to right away."

Then, to stand out from the crowd, he went off the beaten path. At Vintage, I dive into Joulupukki, a Finnish sahti brewed with juniper berries, rye and baker's yeast; Alpentraum, a smoked weizenbock; and Sprucifer, a cask-conditioned brown ale, brewed with essence of spruce. The last is like drinking a pine tree - in a good way.

"I've been really pleased and kind of surprised at how receptive the beer-drinking community has been," Manning says. He's even managed to sell stalwart drinkers on a tart hibiscus saison, from an employee's recipe. "You would be surprised by how many fellas were drinking a pink beer."

In all likelihood, many of those fellas were already beer enthusiasts. They're not terribly hard to come by here. According to Kirby Nelson, Madison is unique: Nationally, craft beer sales account for about 5% of the market. Here, not just craft beers in general, but specifically Wisconsin craft beers, constitute 20% of sales.

"There's going to be a boom in the craft beer market," Nelson tells me. "And with that you're going to have a growth in all segments, so the extreme market's going to grow a little bit. You're going to see a lot of interesting things come up. And once in a while, someone's going to come up with something that really actually is, besides being extreme, good."

There is one hitch of late: the state Legislature's recent passage of Motion 414, meant to clean up some problems with Wisconsin's beer distribution system, but written and enacted without any input from craft brewers. The motion substantially changes how small brewers can operate, restricting or eliminating their ability to hold retail and wholesale licenses. That cuts off potential revenue streams for current brewers, and makes it significantly more expensive for new players to enter the game.

Furthermore Beer, for instance, operates under a wholesale license, because federal law says a beer maker must own its own brewing facility to be classified as a "brewer." Furthermore pays a contract brewer to make its beer and then sells it to six distributors.

Under the new law, though, the company will lose its wholesale permit if it doesn't have at least 25 retail customers. Barring some loophole, Aran Madden will have to end his relationship with at least one distributor, buying back the sales territory at a cost of thousands of dollars, and then spend more time and money distributing his beer himself.

It's a big step backward, since he started out self-distributing before moving to the more economically efficient relationship with distributors. That will leave less money to invest in making beers that resonate with a limited audience. "The state wrote out my business model," Madden says.

"414 restricts future opportunities for current brewers and people who are interested in getting into the brewing industry," says New Glarus Brewing president Deb Carey. That could have an impact on extreme beer, since small commercial brewers bring more experimental beers into the public eye than any other group. "Craft beers have really been at the forefront of response to consumer curiosity."

In the mid-'90s, when American beers made with fruit were an oddity, New Glarus won an international award for Best Specialty Beer for its Raspberry Tart framboise. "Craft brewers have the ability to respond quickly," Carey says. "If somebody in the gift shop starts going, 'Why don't you make blah-blah-blah?' they've already reached the top." She can talk to her husband, brewmaster Dan, that night about launching a new beer.

And that flexibility and responsiveness ultimately serve to attract drinkers who never considered themselves beer fans. For instance, Aran Madden's mother-in-law, who balked at a stout, loved the Thermo Refur.

"There are a lot of people who, when there was one kind of beer - when the large American breweries were essentially making the chardonnay of beer - they said, 'I just don't like beer,'" he says. "But when you stretch the flavor profile, those people go, 'Oh. Well, I like this beer.'"

Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest
Saturday, Jan. 21, Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall
VIP tasting ($75): 1-2 pm General admission ($40 advance, $45 door): 2-6 pm

The fest features samples of Wisconsin craft beers and artisanal cheeses, along with beer-pairing presentations. Tickets are available at the Isthmus office, Star Liquor, Fromagination, the Malt House, Vintage Brewing, Steve's Liquor stores, and at the door. Union Cab will offer free rides to the event and discounted rides from it.

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