by Kevin M. Smith

Here in the Old Line State Bo Lenck and Jim Wagner at DuClaw might be high gravity kings of Maryland, presiding over a brewery that produces at least five beers with double digit ABV. With a variety of barley wines and strong ales that average 15.8 percent ABV it might come as a surprise to some that only one of the Bel Air brewery's high gravity offerings qualifies as an extreme beer; Colossus, a strong ale that comes in at a whopping 21.92 percent ABV. However, strength of beer is not the only thing that might qualify a fine quaff for the distinction of extreme.

While Colossus is indeed an extreme beer, there are plenty of other beers that fit the moniker in as much as the way they are made is somehow out of the norm; heather and lavender take the place of the hops in the brewing process; traditional styles that are double or triple hopped, or use malt in the same sort of excess; beers, porters and ales that use what might once – and by some still – have been considered unusual ingredients such as chocolate, peanut butter, espresso beans, candied ginger, oysters, or seaweed; or even beers that use a variety of wild bacteria and yeast strains in order to produce a sharper beer. When looked at through the broad lens of what fits the description “extreme” there are plenty of beers to be had from all over Maryland that aren't looking to challenge the ambitions of Colossus.
George Humbert, owner and brew master of Dog Brewing in Westminster, MD hasn't worked up the high grav angle, but he certainly has toyed with ingredients. Humbert brews his chocolate oatmeal stout with roasted cacao nibs and vanilla beans. The goal, he said, is to have “a balance between the chocolate, oatmeal and vanilla.” What attracts Humbert to making extreme beers, he explained, is the opportunity to work with new and unique ingredients.
Down in Frederick, Matt Brophy, the senior vice president in charge of brewing operations at Flying Dog talked a bit about the Canis Major line of beers. The line includes the brewery's Double Dog, a double IPA, and Gonzo Imperial Porter, a double porter which goes down with an unusually hoppy finish due to, as brewery literature puts it, being dry-hopped with “a shitload of cascade hops.” Brophy explained that when the Canis Major beers were introduced, popularity was slow in coming, but the four beers, which include the Gonzo and the Double, now account for 15 percent of the brewery's sales – not bad for what some would call beers with niche appeal.
In spite of the fact that the Canis Beers weren't Flying Dog's most popular brews upon debuting, they showed enough promise to merit keeping the beers that were originally intended as single batch brews. “Both Double Dog and Gonzo Imperial Porter were originally intended to be one time releases;” said Brophy. “Double Dog for our tenth anniversary and Gonzo to memorialize Hunter S. Thompson’s life after his death. Due to their extreme popularity, the decision was made to continue production of these beers. Horn Dog Barley Wine has been part of our line-up for some time and we added Kerberos three years ago based on the internal desire to have a Belgian style beer as part of our portfolio. Sales of all of these beers continue to be great.”
In addition to mixing ingredients like the Cascade hops, typical of an IPA, in a porter, the CM beers tend to be higher gravity, although none approach the intimidating ABV of DuClaw's Colossus. “Strength is certainly a component of the Canis Major series,” said Brophy, “but our focus is more on creativity and providing our customers with a remarkable beer experience.”
Brewing at a facility the size of Flying Dog, Brophy and his assistant brewers have the luxury of being able to play a little more than many of their colleagues around the state. “We are constantly experimenting and pilot brewing new recipes and concepts. Beers that are received well internally are given further consideration to be scaled to a production size brew.”
Tom Flores, brew master at Brewer's Alley in downtown Frederick offered a variety of thoughts on the subject. “As far as extreme beers go, we aren't really known for that,” he said. “Though some beers we do and have done could certainly qualify.
“I personally have an aversion to making a beer when the motivation has its roots in a gimmick. I won't brew a beer simply to present a gimmick for the sake of a gimmick. And in my book, finding the extreme limit of any flavor attribute, at the expense of the rest of a beer's flavor profile - especially balance and drinkability - is a crass gimmick.
“Now, with that said, we have done some things over the years that stray from traditional techniques, but it has always been in the context of developing an interesting flavor which works in a well crafted beer that has appropriate intensity and complexity for the style. And in a new style, it still has to be well-balanced. I prefer to express the art of brewing at the level of subtlety more often than at the level of obnoxious intensity and this usually comes through with the orchestration of complexity in our beer, rather than singularity of flavor. Even though, we have had beers with a single flavor taking prominence, for instance the beer we did for the 2009 [Brewer's Association of Maryland's] Springfest where we used lavender along with lemon zest. It wasn't a very complex beer, but still it was really nice.”
While Flores has ventured into bittering ingredients that have been used in place of hops, neighboring brewer Will Golden at Frederick's Barley and Hops brewpub admits that he's not a fan of using ingredients such as lavender or heather. That said, he certainly does like turning the use of traditional ingredients up a notch or two. “I make a double IPA called Double Deuce at about nine percent ABV,” noted Golden. It uses “almost four pounds of hops per barrel. It uses three times as many hops as a normal IPA.”
For the most part, that's where Golden's foray into the world of extreme brewing ends – but not because he isn't interested in experimenting a little more. Golden pointed out a common problem for the small brewery and brewpub in regards to expanded offerings It's “mostly scheduling issues and tank space. With the extremely limited space everything has to be meticulously planned. In order to do a seasonal at all I have to take one of the staple beers out of fermentation rotation and hope I have enough to last until the seasonal is finished. Then keg off the seasonal and replace the staple beer.”
Golden intimated that this could be less of an issue were he working with more serving tanks than fermenters, as well as additional cold storage, but limited space and tanks are common occurrences at brewpubs which are always involved in a balancing act between brewery, kitchen, and dining space.
Down at The Ruddy Duck in Solomons Island, brewer Jonathan Reeves preaches from the same pulpit as Flores. “I love to make different beers,” explained Reeves, “but I am always seeking to find balance with new and novel combinations. I've used spices done barrel aging and I would like to experiment with novel fermentations but with caveats; I wouldn't call myself a traditional brewer but I would also note that many of these 'new styles' have historical precedents. The Scottish have a history of using alternative bittering agents like heather or quassia but mostly from a perspective of pragmatism and economy. The same is true in regard to using spices like ginger,licorice and chillies - particularly in porter - but this was true for a potentially more sinister reason; these ingredients added heat to the beer making it seem more alcoholic or intoxicating thereby increasing its value while reducing its production cost. That said, I love spiced beer but again it is so easy to over do. I just brewed a braggot with a touch of ginger and I agonized on just how much ginger that should be, I know that this spice goes well with honey but the honey ultimately must show through for the beer to be enjoyable and complex.”
Reeves and Flores both express concerns regarding extreme beers, but that hasn't stopped them from experimenting. Unfortunately Reeves has encountered beers that have failed to walk the balancing act between popping flavors, where the brewer has settled for an overwhelming flavor of hops, or the cough syrupy sweetness of an ill-crafted high gravity beer at the expense of brewing what he felt could have been a quality beer. “Big beers and hoppy beers should follow the same maxims,” he said. “My brother-in-law was the captive audience of an individual consuming a six-pack of one the extreme double imperial IPA's that reduced his guest to a raving lunatic who eventually took slumber on his dinner table - not too enjoyable. If I produce a strong beer then it should have a complexity that does not blindside the drinker. And don't get me started on the hops thing, I love hops but a hoppy beer should not be like licking a telephone pole.”
Reeves continued, “beyond all this moralizing I am certainly less than perfect. I have made extreme beers and my patrons sometimes ever so slowly have drank it leaving me an empty tank to start anew. I value my patrons and I don't want to either treat them like suckers or wrap them up in some kind of self absorbed search for my artistic fulfillment. I want them to enjoy themselves, to stop and appreciate the moment when they can be insulated from the extreme and unpredictable.”
Flores, while coming off as something of a traditionalist when discussing extreme beers, went on to talk at length about what he has experimented with. “We have done beers that utilize barrels,” said Flores. “In 1998 we racked some of our Scotch Ale into a wine barrel from Loew's Vineyards here in Frederick County...The barrel was emptied of a 50 percent honey and 50 percent Cabernet sauvignon wine just before we used it. There was a little contribution to flavor from the wine and the barrel itself. The second time we used the barrel, there was only a faint hint of flavor from the barrel. And this past winter, we racked our Oatmeal Stout into a Woodford Reserve Bourbon barrel for a bourbon tasting we did in April...The bourbon flavor comes through nicely and really complements the roasty and caramel notes of the Oatmeal Stout. We only gave it a 'kiss' of the barrel though - two weeks contact - as we were apprehensive about getting too much bourbon flavor. I've seen this happen before.
“Our Resinator is a double IPA. I refuse to call it 'Imperial IPA', as the only style that has an historical connection to the [term] is Russian Imperial Stout [and maybe Baltic Porter as well]. Calling beers 'Imperial-this' and 'Imperial-that' is kind of gimmicky to me. We do use a lot of hops in it; it's a big strong beer with a lot of hop aroma and significant bitterness. But it also has enough malt intensity to keep it balanced well.”
While they have yet to brew a chocolate beer at Brewer's Alley, Flores noted that he has thought about it. There are plenty of other ingredients that he has tried. Through the fall, the Frederick brewpub has had a beer called Ginger Gold which utilized fresh-diced ginger in the brew kettle. Maple syrup, caraway seeds and molasses are among the ingredients that have also found their way into the beers that Flores has made.
There are things about extreme beer that seem trendy. Amongst Maryland's craft brewers some are wary of the products that have hit the shelves in the name of exploring new, or more intense flavors. Still, they see the trend as something that bodes well for the future of the industry.
“Most of the times, whenever we've done a non-traditional beer or an extreme beer, there are always those who like it and like it a lot, and everyone else sticks with the other beer,” said Flores. “So we do get a response, but it's usually a niche response. But that's the great thing about a brewpub; we can play around and get immediate feedback for future reference.”
“American craft beer drinkers are a smart group of people who understand beer styles and know what they like,” observed Brophy. “They also understand that trying new beers is an important part of the process of discovering and enjoying new and interesting beers. 'Extreme' beers often give drinkers a chance to experience some new and often unusual flavor profiles.”
“We find that most people are willing to experience the adventure of trying out a new flavor they've never encountered before, especially when found in beer,” added Flores “That's a good sign for the future of craft brewing!”

Look for more on high gravity beers in the December/January issue of The Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, on stands in breweries, brew pubs, and homebrew shops December 1.
I'm in the process of relaunching this site. Grains-n-Grapes is going to be revived in the coming weeks as a supplement to my work for the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. For those of you who haven't read my bio, I am the Maryland columnist for the MABN. The publication comes out once every two months, and, as such, becomes problematic in regards to reporting on events that are not announced during the right editorial window.

While the news here will be Maryland intensive, I do plan on looking beyond the borders of the Old Line State, covering Maryland's burgeoning wine industry, and covering home brewing issues. This blog will include traditional reporting, editorials, and Webcasts. I hope to bring you interviews with brewers, innovators, and the movers and shakers in the beer industry.

While I can't guarantee it, I hope to always bring something new, fresh, and entertaining to the beer enthusiast. For example, those living in and around Washington DC should head on down to Churchkey ( just outside of Logan Circle in order to meet the ladies of The Naked Pint - The authors of the craft beer guide are part of a Flying Dog sponsored meet and greet.

1337 14th Street
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 567-2576

One final note - I am working on some format changes to the site in order to enhance the reader's experience. Please come back often for updates.

Yours in good fermentables,

Kevin M. Smith
This man has an interesting review of one:

NSFW! Or children!
DuClaw Brewing
Belair, MD
Grade: 9.25

According to the press release, Celebrate Halloween with the latest brew straight from Jim Wagner's cauldron: 31, our special Spiced Munich Dunkel. This German-style amber lager tricks you with its smooth, malty taste and moderate 5.1% abv, then treats your palate with a spicy finish of cinnamon and nutmeg. 31 goes on tap October 31st (all day) and will be available for a limited time — while supplies last. So get to your nearest DuClaw on Halloween night and sample a beer so good it's scary! Costumes are optional ... but encouraged.

So...I have a great job. The pay isn't great, but I go to beer festivals and microbreweries, and brew pubs. It's what I get paid to do.

As such, I get to meet some great people throughout the state - homebrewers, brewmasters, bar tenders, brewery CEO's, sales, marketing, and production line people. It's a job that allows me to sit and chat with these people over some good beer and good food.

Some of my favorites - as much for their beer as it is for their company - are the guys at DuClaw. Brewers Jim Wagner and Bo Lenck do some fine work. Sure, I'm not thrilled by their Raspberry Chocolate Stout, but I've never been thrilled by raspberry beers. My wife, on the other hand, loves it. Really just a matter of taste.

Now, the 31 I noted above, I drove an hour to sample this, and it was well worth the ride (my wife says that the stout is as well - so if that's your cup of tea, make the trip).

The 31 was an imminently drinkable Dunkel with a nice aroma, pours well and has beautiful color. The spices were subtle without being understated, or overwhelming. I highly recommend this beer.

Coming soon: reviews of Sam Adams Imperial Pilsner, Flying Dog's Gonzo Imperial Porter and their Kerberos Tripel, as well as DuClaw Devil's Milk.


Finally! Something to write home about. This light, fruity wine from the oldest winemaking family in America has enough spice to make it so good with any spicy dish and of course alone. You can find it for under $10.
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