St. Louis brewers compete to create most 'extreme' new beers; companies follow suit

Monday, April 14, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- Brewers in St. Louis are competing to create the next wave of "extreme" beers, including lemongrass flavored ales and a "barley wine" that contains 10 percent alcohol by volume.

The craft brewers say it's getting harder to push the envelope when they create new beers, as the range of brewing creativity and boldness keeps expanding. But that isn't stopping them from trying.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that even the nation's biggest brewer is getting in on the trend. Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. just released a blueberry flavored lager called Wild Blue.

Extreme beers defy easy classification, but you know them when you see them: barley wines ranging above 10 percent alcohol by volume, ultra-hopped ales and wood-aged beers.

Although "extreme" beers often have been linked to strong alcohol content, brewers say the label also applies to offbeat ingredients and zany brewing and aging processes. Extreme beers can raise credibility and boost a little brewery's cachet among serious craft beer drinkers, those hard-to-impress folks who can casually discuss a brew's "balance," "gravity" and "hoppiness."

But to see the beers as sales-boosters would miss the main point, brewers say. Mostly, the creative beers are just fun to make, offering the chance to heed the creative Muse.

"Brewers are really brewing for their own palates," said Sam Calagione, founder of the Delaware-based Dogfish Head brewery and one of the godfathers of the extreme beer niche. "We're brewers first and business people second."

Square One Brewing in St. Louis churns out a "Spicy Blond" Belgian-style ale spiced with lemongrass and ginger, as well as a "Belgian Tripel," clocking in at 9 percent alcohol by volume.

Nearby St. Louis Brewery Inc. sends its "Schlafly Reserve" series -- including oak barrel-aged barley wine and bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout, packing more than 10 percent alcohol by volume -- to distributors at far-flung beer festivals.

The company also plans to expand its line of bottled-conditioned beers beyond its current "Biere de Garde," marketed as a French farmhouse-style ale. The beer gets a secondary fermentation as it sits at cellar temperatures inside 750-milliliter Champagne bottles, ending up with 7.5 percent alcohol by volume.

By the end of the year, St. Louis Brewery plans to sell "tripel" and "quadrupel" bottle-conditioned beers, at about 9 percent and 12 percent alcohol, respectively.

Dan Kopman, chief operating officer at St. Louis Brewery, said the definition of extreme seems to get more exotic as brewers experiment.

"Obviously, there's a lot of interest in all this," Kopman said. "We're going to try some things and make it really interesting for the consumer."

The big players have taken notice. Anheuser-Busch, whose flagship Budweiser and Bud Light are 5 percent and 4.2 percent alcohol by volume, respectively, tested the upper range of its brewing spectrum last month, announcing it was selling a blueberry-flavored lager, Wild Blue, nationwide.

Wild Blue, 8 percent alcohol by volume, is "not suited for timid or reserved beer drinkers," the brewer advised in a news release.

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