10 Brews that push craft beer’s limits

Craft beer is something that lends itself to long conversations: it’s easy to talk about, it’s easy to debate, and drinking a lot of it leads to even more conversation.  It’s simple to talk to someone about their favorite styles, about the best beer they’ve ever had, about the worst beer they’ve ever had, or their favorite place to get a drink.

As a brewer, I love to talk about those beers that stretch or redefine their styles.  I love the ambition in craft beer, when a brewer sits down to plot their next recipe and says “Lets see how far I can take this”.  Sometimes it results in insanity, or a mess, or even something that’s eminently forgettable.  But sometimes it results in something magical.  And it always results in beer, which is usually a win.  And so I present to you ten beers that in their own special way push the limits of modern craft beer.

1.  Brewmeister’s Snake Venom – highest abv

Snake Venom - craft beer's highest abv

Snake Venom – Brewmeister

The crown for highest ABV currently goes to Brewmeister’s ‘Snake Venom’, which clocks in with a whopping 67.5% abv.  They don’t really make any attempt to mask the bite of the alcohol – not that you really could do much at that abv – and yet this barleywine still has all the qualities of a barleywine: maltiness, some hoppiness, deliciousness.  The warning label about excessive alcohol consumption adds another level to the boundary-pushing qualities of this boozy beast.

2.  Arbor Ales 2012 double black IPA – highest ibu

Arbor Ales Double Black IPA - highest ibu's in craft beer

Arbor Ales 2012 Double Black IPA

Though the taste threshold of a normal person is 100 ibu’s, some people really love hops and just aren’t satisfied with that limit.  And so you have the insanity of the race for the highest theoretical ibus in a beer.  Now, Arbor Ales 2012 (named/done in honor of the London 2012 Olympics), isn’t the beer with the absolute highest ibus as both Flying Monkeys Alpha Fornication and Steel City’s 20,000 Not Out top it, but it is much higher rated and had a better availability that either of the two.  And, as is the case with Alpha Fornication, when your beer consistently is described as being like Pea Soup, it doesn’t have me salivating to try it.  That leaves Arbor Ales 2012 with 2012 ibus to take the crown of delicious beer with the highest ibus.

3. Brewdogs The End of History – most unusual bottle

Brewdog End of History

The End of History – Brewdogs

I don’t know or understand why or at what point in the brewing process the guys at Brewdog decided to use taxidermied roadkill as their bottles, but I like it.  If you’re going to drop a nice chunk of change on a rare bottle of highly alcoholic craft beer, why not get it in a package that you’ll always remember?  And the thought of some classy dead stoat standing amongst some guys collection of pricy, fancy bottles really amuses me.

4.  Nail Brewing’s Antarctic Nail Ale – most expensive

Antarctic Nail Ale - craft beers most expensive

Antarctic Nail Ale

Craft beer made for a cause: the Sea Shepherd Society.  This beer by Australian brewery Nail Brewing, is made with water from melted Antarctic ice.  When put up for auction, these bottles fetched between $800 – $1800, with the proceeds directly benefiting the Sea Shepherd Society.

5.  Wynkoop’s Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout – most unusual ingredient

Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout - bulls balls beer

Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout – Wynkoop

You can find a lot of unusual ingredients in craft beer: there’s all manner of bacteria used in brewing sour beers (e. coli, among others), and brewers will use things like insanely hot peppers, algae, cannabis, all manner of herbs/spices, and even pizza.  But, meat isn’t usually something you find in beer – with the occasional exception of oysters and bacon.  Testicles take the cake when it comes to offbeat ingredients.

6. Twisted Pine’s Ghostface Killah – spiciest beer

Ghost Face Killah - the hottest beer

Ghostface Killah – Twisted Pines

Beer and chiles are an excellent combination: beer goes fantastically well with Mexican and other Latin cuisine, and chiles as an ingredient can bring a great smokiness and fruitiness to your beer.  One of the most interesting beers I’ve ever tried was a black pepper, chile, and pumpkin beer at the 2012 Elysian Pumpkin Beer Festival.  That said, as happens in craft beer, someone has to see just how much chile you can cram into a beer and thus you have Ghostface Killah by Twisted Pines brewery.  Containing Anaheim, Serrano, Jalapeno, Habanero and Ghost peppers, Ghostface Killah has some solid chile aroma and flavor, and serious liquid burn.  Be prepared to sear your insides.

7. Rogue’s Voodoo maple bacon doughnut beer – strangest flavor combination

Voodoo Donut Maple Bacon beer - just why?

Voodoo Donut Maple Bacon beer – Rogue

Let’s set a few things straight: bacon is wonderful, donuts are great, and beer is proof that life can be good.  But, this combination just does not work.  Like a mixture of liquid smoke and sickly-sweet maple, this beer is a good idea carried out with poor execution.  Rogue, you’ve made some tasty beers over the years, and Voodoo Donuts you are a delicious institution, but your lovechild doesn’t bear much resemblance to either of you.

8.  Dogfish Head’s Chateau Jiahu – Beer based on oldest known fermented beverage

Chateau Jiahu: old and delicious

Chateau Jiahu – Dogfish head

Based on remnants found in 9,000 year old pottery found in Jiahu, China and extracted through the science of biomolecular archaeology.  Chateau Jiahu is an extrapolation of the worlds oldest known fermented beverage, which was a mixture of mead, fermented grape and fruit juice, spices, and rice.  It’s incredible to think

9.  Hair of the Dog’s Dave – Rarest beer not in production

Hair of the Dog Dave - very rare and pricy

Hair of the Dog – Dave

This rare brew traces its origins to 1994 and through a process of freeze distillation, it clocks in at 29% abv.  It has a nearly mythical place in the pantheon of craft beer, and has continuously grown in popularity since first winnng an award in 1998.  Every few years, portions of the batch are autioned off, with values increasing at each acution and a portion of the proceeds going to charity.  An unknown quantity remains and with each passing auction, demand and prices soar ever higher.

10.  Westvleteren XII – Rarest beer currently in production

Westvleteren XII

Westvleteren XII

And here we have the granddaddy of exclusive beers: Westy XII.  Technically, this beer can only be purchased directly from the Westvleteren Monastery in Belgium, or at the bar across the street.  Supply is tightly controlled,, resale of the brew is strongly discouraged, and sales only occur on certain days of the month (and typically you must call ahead to get on a waitlist if purchasing from the monastery).  The rarity of the beer (and it’s fantastic taste) lends to its ranking as one of the best beers in the world

Now, I’m sure that within a few months parts of this list will become out of date, but that’s part of the wonder of the craft beer scene.  Beer is constantly evolving and pushing the limits of what defines beer.  Not all of the results are particularly tasty or appealing (I’m looking at you, Voodoo Donut beer), and some of them might burn, or be insanely priced, but isn’t it amazing to be part of such a tradition?  To know that somewhere out there, someone is thinking about making a beer with some insane ingredient, or a ridiculous abv, or a mountain of hops, makes me proud to be a brewer.  I love this crazy flexible thing we call beer.

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