“And They Were Lined Up For Blocks Waiting to Buy a Bottle…”

“…of Allsopp’s Strong Christmas Ale, a potent, limited edition beer described as ‘mellow as old Burgundy and as nourishing as a beefsteak.’ The latest in the ‘extreme beer’ craze that has swept the nation.”

Well, no, they weren’t. The time was the mid-1800’s and it’s doubtful that anyone was talking about so-called “extreme” beers, even if they were drinking what today might well fit the bill.

Zythophile Martyn Cornell has the skinny on this tale of strong ale, and it’s a good one. Go read it, now.

The reason I mention this, aside from its obvious value as beer history, is in response to the manufactured “feud” between the beer extremists and session beer advocates, as if a fondness for one type of beer precludes an affinity for the other. For the purpose of this illustration, however, let’s imagine that such a feud does exist.

Were there actually to be two such camps, the Arctic Ale/Strong Christmas Ale story demonstrates that the populace of the former group are advocating for something that simply does not exist. There have always been beers of strength, high hopping rates – at least, since hops were welcomed into the brewhouse – unusual ingredients, barrel-aging and so forth, hence there is nothing “extreme” about such beers or techniques in brewing today. They are as old as beer itself.

Session beers, on the other hand, are defined as being of a strength conducive to drinking over the course of an elongated session. You and I (and Lew) may differ as to what constitutes such a strength, but I think we can all agree that lower alcohol beers are session beers and so session beers do exist.

Thus, if the “extreme” vs. session feud did exist, victory must go to the sessioners, since the extremists are arguing in favour of a figment of their imaginations.


5 Replies to ““And They Were Lined Up For Blocks Waiting to Buy a Bottle…””

  1. I wonder if this level of bickering/nitpicking would still result if we replaced “extreme” with “bold” and “robust” a la the menu at beer bistro? It starts to become akin to the political propaganda where “conservative” or “liberal” automatically mean bad… because the speaker has weighed them down with all the negative connotations they possibly can.
    Personally I enjoy beer with flavour. Even when I reach for a “session” beer like a Weihenstephaner, it has flavour. Is a session beer “subtle, repeatable, low-ish abv beer that still has flavour”, or “bland and boring”? Is “extreme” beer “full flavoured, bold, and interesting” or “blunt, abrasive, and unrefined”?

  2. Bravo, Stephen. I think a big point the extremists miss is that if there can be any hope of the small US breweries surviving and succeeding, extreme beer is a great way of dashing that hope. With over 90 percent of beer sales in the US going to larger and blander breweries, what evidence is there that those who appreciate bland beer would ever move over to extreme beer? It is quite simply the antithesis of what they now drink.

    1. Actually, Mike, I have to disagree with you on that front, and rather emphatically so. The big beers do sell, and very well, but more importantly, they also draw attention to a brewery’s more conventional portfolio. It’s a marketing strategy that has been used to great success by any number of breweries, notably Boston Beer and Dogfish Head, to cite but two examples.

      1. Stephen, I wonder if we are talking about the same thing? I am talking about the harshly over-hopped and hyper-sweetened beers. As I don’t live in the US, my access to US beers is rather limited, but from what I read, Boston is mostly successful with it’s middle-of-the-road bland beers.

        And, in fact, I have been assured by several people who know better than I that “extreme beers” make up a very small percentage of the output of small breweries there.

        1. In my view, Mike, so-called “extreme” are not necessarily “over-hopped and hyper-sweetened.” Some are quite good, indeed excellent. And the media tends to pick up on them, thus giving the brewery valuable exposure and leaving its name in people’s minds when they next go to buy beer, so perhaps leading to a few more six-packs sold of the non-extreme pale ale or porter.

          Boston Beer does sell the vast majority of their volume in more conventional beers, specifically their (quite decent, I think) Boston Lager. But a big part of the reason everyone knows about them is the promotional success they have had with their big beers.

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