Saturday, June 6, 2009

Taming the American Strong Ale

Some folks criticize our American obsession with trying to categorize every micro-category of beer in the world. I ran into a guy at our local brew shop who was buying ingredients for a Belgian Tripel. He asked me what I was brewing and I replied, "I'm working on a Belgian Strong Golden with no candy sugar".  He replied "What's the difference between a Tripel and a Strong Golden anyways? F*** BJCP." Well, there's plenty of difference between a Tripel and a Belgian Strong Golden. Not that we should over-intellectualize beer but it is helpful to know what we are drinking. Context and standards are a helpful framework for articulating what it is that we enjoy most as well as a mechanism for staving off confusion. If I mention the plant 'Quercus falcata' to a fellow horticulturist not only will she know that it is an oak tree but she will know that it is a very specific one - the Southern Red Oak. Botany's taxonomic nomenclature system allows for the two of us to be clear on what we are discussing instead of just generalizing that it is a tree as opposed to a shrub. 

Some style designations have cropped up in an effort to categorize the many new types of beer coming down the hatch. The American Strong Ale category is certainly one of them. As innovation in brewing continues to drive the craft industry there is a constant struggle to label and categorize each new product that makes it's way into a bottle. American Strong Ales is a category that does not show up in the BJCP style guidelines unless you include American Barleywines which are a sub-category of Strong Ales. However, American Strong Ales are a well populated style that exists in force on the many beer rating sites we find in .comville. Beeradvocate has an extensive list of American Strong Ales that range from Dogfish Head's Immort to Stone's Arrogant Bastard and Hebrew's Jewbelation. I guess they are all relatively dark beers that are all above 7% (their definition of American Strong Ales includes dark American beers between 7% and 25% ABV). It would be safe to say that these are derivatives of the Strong Ale category that is compiled of Old Ales, English Barleywines, and American Barleywines. This basket is designed to catch the many creative high gravity, non-conforming offerings of American craft breweries. 

After having brewed many Belgian-style ales in the past few years I was longing to make something with bold west coast hops and a clean, aggressive American Ale yeast. I settled on a recipe that involved piles of roasted malt, Special B (I have a hard time making anything without Special B) and a bag of Marris Otter. I used Amarillo, Simcoe, Cascade, and Magma in this 8% beast and steeped course ground Trappeze coffee beans in the finish. After kegging I used 3 different oaking treatments in an effort to see which would yield the best result. 
These big beers take time. They have been on oak for nearly a week and will likely need a few more. We grow accustomed to drinking plenty of flat unconditioned beer in the process of figuring out when our beers are just right and this is no exception. Who knows if this one will be a winner or another notch on the belt of experience. In the mean time I have brewed the above mentioned Belgian Strong Golden Ale in the spirit of Malheur (no candy sugar) and can't wait for this one to come out of the fermenter. It was one of the most beautiful beers I have ever crafted from a standpoint of color and pre-fermentation flavor. I am considering putting half of it into a 7 gallon Single Malt cask I just bought from a distillery in NY. We'll see. I think all of the twists and turns is what keeps this exciting. There's always something we take away from each batch that inspires us to do something better on the next and hopefully create something that stops the mouths of our beer-geek friends long enough for them to enjoy the pint in reverent silence.

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