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Lock it in the Basement: Aging Beers

Aging: It’s not just for wines, whiskeys and people who aren’t me.

So I’ve decided to take the next step in my beer appreciation learnings and start doing what I’ve wanted to do ever since I tried some beer that had undergone this process. I’m going to start aging beer. I think my first instance in trying some aged beer was at Dogfish Head’s brewpub, where I had a World Wide Stout that had been aged for one year and…dear LORD, it was amazing. Ever since then I’ve been thinking about it. Last week, when Amsterdam Brewery released Tempest Imperial Stout (a delicious one-off originally brewed last year) I decided to buy a few to be the first test subjects in my beer cellar. Lucky thing I got them too, as all 1400 bottles produced sold out within two days. Also, thank heavens, I was able to get the last Muskoka “Winter Beard” Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout from Muskoka Brewery’s retail store.

But how the hell do I get to aging these things? Well, I’m still reading on the subject, but here’s what I’ve learned so far…

–       The beers have to be stored at a cool 10-20°c in a dark, semi-dry room. A basement, garage or cave will do in a pinch. A closet for apartment dwellers also works.

–       The beers have to be bottle-conditioned, which is to say that there are active yeasts in the bottles allowing the beer to further ferment.

–       Beers heavy in malts like Stouts, Porters, Barley Wines and Belgian Ales are best for aging for long periods of time. This makes sense, since the more malts (sugars) the more of a meal the yeasts have which will allow them to do their thing (eat sugar, poop alcohol).

–       Hoppy beers aren’t that great for aging over long periods of time, as the hops break down after a while and create a kind of skunky, dreadful drink.

–       The higher the alcohol content, the more benefits the beer will have to being aged. The agreed upon rule seems to be “8% ABV or higher”, although many Beglian beers with low ABV percentages have also benefited greatly from aging.

–       If the beer contains Brettanomyces, a Belgian yeast that is usually added near bottling time, you’re able to age it. This yeast does a lot in a few months or years (see Goose Island’s Matilda, which can be aged for five years). Having this yeast isn’t needed, this is just a “if you see a beer with this in it, go for it” kind of tip.

–       While there is some argument on this, it is advised to always store the beer in the upright position rather than on its side. The debate is mainly over how to store beer that has been corked, as laying it on the side will prevent the cork from drying out. Although a way around THAT can be to dip the top of the bottle with wax. You know what, I’ll just leave it to one’s discretion.

The advantage of aging beers? Well, there are certain strong flavours in beers that mellow out over time and bring a rise to flavours you may not have noticed before. In Imperial Stouts, for instance, the alcohol bite goes down along with the heavy coffee overtones and presents a sweeter, almost creamier beer. So it highlights complexities to a beer that you didn’t know were there. That’s a good enough reason for me, at any rate.

Beers can be aged for years and years too. I’ve heard plenty of stories of people opening a bottle of Chimay from 1986  and even a beer that was discovered to have been stored since 1869! Madness? Probably. Worth it? Most definitely.

You can also age beer in things like Oak whiskey barrels to add a wonderful flavour and depth to the beers, but since I’m not Mme. Moneybucks McGee (Of the Southampton McGees), I’m going to discuss bottle aging for now.

Right, so now on to my little project.

It was easy to pick the location (the basement of my cottage in Muskoka). It’s dark, it’s cold and it’s dry, but not dry enough to give me a nosebleed or chapped lips. It also has shelf space, so if a flood happens down there (Give me a break, it IS a cottage. It happens) then I have no fear of water touching my precious bottles. I also have something covering it, so no burglers will sneak in to the house in the middle of the night and find it.

It’s important to label what year your beers are from (see above picture) so you’ll remember. And don’t think you will, because unless you’re some kind of savant or only aging one beer you’ll have at least a bit of difficulty remembering. Just do it that way. To add a fun bit of nostalgia to it, I may also write down a few details of how my life is currently going, so I can look back on it. But hey, do what you want.

So now it’s set up in complete, cold darkness and is FAR AWAY from me. I’ll admit, one of my biggest concerns is the will power it takes to just WAIT. Because now I have some fantastic beers in that room and what’s the harm in just having one? See, this is why I chose the cottage. I go up there about 4-5 times a year now, so the chance of me getting to it is pretty minimal. My other biggest concern is how the room will be in the winter time. If it ends up being too cold, I may have to move them. But I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, eh?

So here’s the score with the beers I have on your right. I have three bottles of this year’s Tempest Imperial Stout, which according to the brewer, can be aged for up to three years. One will be aged for one year, another for two and the final for a third year. The Tempest wrapped in a white top has already been aged for a year and a half (came with a six pack of the beer as a gift) and will be brewed for an additional year and a half. If more Temptests come out every year, I’ll be buying some to age. The Muskoka Winter Beard will be aged for a year. There is also a plan to age some Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, Goose Island Matilda and Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. We’ll see how those go. Regardless I am going to try to have at least three beers in there at any given time for several years.

And that’s that. If any of you readers have suggestions for beers to age, I’d sure appreciate it! If I can get a hold of it, I’ll try!

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Chicago: One Hell of a Town

I have returned alive and well from the Windy City! C2E2 was a blast, seeing friends from both Chicago and all over the country was a thrill and walking all over that city was just perfect.

But you’re reading a beer blog. You don’t want to hear about a comic convention and walking around Lincoln Park with my boyfriend. You want to hear about the beer. And so I’ll talk about that.

What a freakin’ town.

Didn’t quite know what to think about it before I went. I kept hearing things like “the Chicago beer scene is just starting to come alive” but I think that’s a lot of hooey. It might be exploding a bit more, but this struck me as a town that’s been used to having craft beer in their lives for a while. Even in the crappiest of bars there was at least a few Belgian styles and a decent IPA.

But jeez, the fantastic beers. And the breweries in and around Chicago! The heavy metal inspired 3 Floyds Arctic Panzer, Revolution Brewing’s Working Woman Brown Ale (which will be part of my fond memories for a very long time) and of course the many amazing beers from Goose Island, which has been operating in Chicago for nearly 25 years and produced interesting drinks like Pepe Nero, made with Peppercorns and Bramble Rye Bourban County, the fantastic imperial stout with the unmistakeable and amazing taste of raspberries and blackberries (pictured above)? Yum. But my heart will always go to my first Goose Island beer, Matilda, a Belgian-style made with a special yeast strain that allows it to be aged for up to five years (if you can wait that long).

And of course, the places and the people are always going to be a factor. We had the pleasure of joining the company with Corben, our Man in Chicago, along with some friends from New York. We went to a FANTASTIC pub with a diverse beer menu called the Map Room where the owner gave me a free pint of Harviestoun Old Engine Oil (on CASK!) for free as a welcome to Chicago and a thank you for coming here (thanks for the suggestion again, Sam from Sawdust City Brewery!). It was there too that I think I fell in love with a little beer called Dragon’s Milk, by New Holland Brewing Company in Michigan. An incredible imperial stout with hints of oak, caramel and vanilla. This definitely became the favourite for me, and I had a few. Later we went to the Bad Apple, a place with a huge beer list and probably one of the best burgers I’ve eaten (and deep fried…cheese curds. Which were surprisingly delicious). I had an “El Chupacabra” burger, which apparently contained goat bits and a Dogfish Head Noble Rot, which was probably the closest to wine a beer has reached for me. Delicious.

Illustrator and comic creator Sarah Becan met up with us and we went to the AMAZING brewpub put on by Revolution Brewing, where I fell in love with the Working Woman Brown Ale. Seriously, please send me some of that stuff. Just perfectly balanced between the hops and malts making for one rough and yet comforting drink. Plus if you’re a woman you feel like a bit of a badass drinking it (Just sayin’).

And on our final night in Chicago Corben took us to Bangers & Lace and we had an amazing time! The guys working the bar were AMAZING and passionate about beer and we found a lot of beers we had put on a list of “beers we want but will most likely never drink”.

Like Dogfish Head’s Bitches Brew. Seen on the first episode of Brew Masters and made specially for the rerelease of the famous Miles Davis album, I never thought I would have this fusion beer of an imperial stout combined with a beer made with honey and gesho. But boy, I had it and…MAN. Having Bitches Brew on my iPod while having my first few sips really completed my experience.

And Hitachino‘s 3 Days Beer from Japan, with THIS amazing story behind it:

“March 11, 2011 14:46, a huge earthquake struck Japan and with it our brewery. Some parts of the brewery house were damaged and the brewing tanks were left leaning at an angle. Completion of the typical mashing period had to be extended to three days until electricity to the brewery was restored. Natural fermentation had already started in the mash tank during these three days with lactic acid culture in our brewery. This “3 DAYS” beer is limited to only 8,000 bottles.”

8,000 bottles. And I was lucky enough to have one. Delicious. Strong taste of Pears which made it very refreshing.

But CHICAGO. Jeez. I can’t tell you just how much I loved that city. To all the people who led us around and gave good company, Melissa, Dowell, Nick, Amy, Sarah Becan, Mike Rooth and ESPECIALLY the amazing Corben, THANK YOU SO MUCH for showing this weird but enthusiastic Canadian gal a good time on her first visit to Chicago.

And now to figure out when I’m going back.

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Best of Winter (Providing It’s Gone)

Don’t know about you folks, but up here our weather has been…well, let’s put it this way: Last week in a single day we had snow, rain, snow, hail, rain and ending with some snow overnight. Now it’s practically t-shirt weather with forecasts saying the temperature will more than double tomorrow.

So screw it, I’m calling it. Winter is over.

I think I’m going to make up a very quick list of some of my highlight beers of Winter. If this were a television show, it would be a clip show episode, but as it is I’m just going to list the beers. These are in no particular order and some of them aren’t even seasonals, but beers I’ve just tried over the winter. It SHOULD be noted that during the winter I primarily drink stouts and porters, because it’s cold and my natural instinct is to drink something that seems like a meal (my rule with stouts is that it’s good if I can put a pencil in the middle of the glass, let go and the beer keeps it up). While there are some exceptions in the list, these are mainly black-as-my-soul beers.

1. Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout by Muskoka Brewery – An absolute treat to have both in bottles and on cask. Cranberry taste is a bit too subtle, but it more than makes up for it in the chocolate taste.

2. Lava Smoked Imperial Stout by Ölvisholt Brugghús – This also was a regular visitor to the LeBlanc house. The coffee and chocolate tastes along with the  liquid smoke makes this beer and is a meal all on itself.

3. Wych Craft Blonde Ale by Wychwood – Noticed this turning up more and more in LCBOs this winter, and have to say, rather crisp and refreshing!

4. Double Chocolate Cherry Stout by Black Oak Brewing Co. – The tartness of the cherries just makes this beer a wonderful treat and the chocolate taste adds a wonderful warmth to it. I was really lucky to try it for the first time on cask, which all in all gave a warmth that I needed that particular night. Will be having some more this week.

5. Infinium by Samuel Adams and Weihenstephan – Slight romantic memory behind this one, because The Fella bought me a bottle of this rather wonderful beer that came in a Champagne bottle. Very clean beer with the taste of a nice, somewhat sweet Belgian Tripel. Needs to be consumed in a champagne flute and it matters on the type of company you have with this drink (mine of course, was wonderful).

6. World Wide Stout (Aged for 1 year) by Dogfish Head Brewery – Hahahaha….man. Visiting one of the brewpubs owned by Dogfish Head was such a TREAT. And part of that treat was having this amazing beer, aged for a solid year.  At about 19%ABV had a lovely chocolaty taste with a slight burn I would normally get from an Imperial Russian Stout. But wonderful. WONDERFUL.

7. Tokyo Imperial Stout by BrewDog – Thanks to a wonderful donation to the Tip Jar from reader Raymond Conlon (you could all learn something from him. HINT HINT), I got to try this $24 Imperial Stout at around 14% ABV (though I’m sure it’s cheaper anywhere but here). INCREDIBLY sweet, which was unexpected for its alcohol content. Wonderful taste of cranberries and chocolate in there. I’d go so far as to say it would make an excellent dessert beer.

8. Sublimely Self Righteous Ale by Stone Brewery – What turned me on to Black IPAs. This was a birthday gift from The Fella, who brought it all the way from the states and…wow.  SO. MUCH. HOPPINESS. Drinking it is like putting a handful of fresh hops right in your mouth. Just wonderful. The Fella, who is a malt fiend, could not finish his share. It is my go-to beer whenever I am in the states now.

9. Black Chocolate Stout by Brooklyn Brewery – Tried this during a 5-hour layover in New York City where I met up with friends Rachael Fox and Eddie McShane and we found a decent watering hole to sit down, have a few drinks and have the most wonderful conversation about photography. This beer, which had a WONDERFUL bittersweet chocolate taste and a creaminess. was a perfect match for the night.

10. Spruce Beer by Garrison Brewing Co. – Most of you have read my review in which I talk about this beer, so will keep this short. But I’ll say this: What a wonderful treat it was to have this beer.  A drink that did an amazing job of invoking the spirit of winter. Loved it.

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I Have Returned (Happy New Year)

Hello!  It’s been a while! Haven’t seen you all since…jeez, last year.  This was primarily due to being at the cottage over the holidays where internet was restricted to my (crappy) cell phone that can only access twitter and e-mail.  Anything beyond that and it screams at me.

I also went off to glorious Washington D.C./Virginia for a week, which was…well, just fantastic.

I’m still recovering from the nearly 24-hour train ride, but just wanted to provide you with a little teaser of what’s to come later on.

Yeah.  That happened.  Just freakin’ wait.

This is The Thirsty Wench.  Happy New Year.

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The Autumn Beer Posts part 1 (with Alan Tyson)

For the month of October, I’ve been cooking up something special.  I’ve been calling on some fellow beer-loving friends from land, sea and air (okay, from all over the world.  Still impressive, but I don’t get to make dramatic hand gestures and you don’t get to read a post by a dolphin).  So for the next couple of weeks you folks will be getting a few posts from an assortment of people (myself included) talking about the Autumn beers of their region that they love.

First up is Alan Tyson from the land of Amerika.  Alan’s a reader and a good friend.  He’s also a writer who went above and beyond by writing a whole post on two beers that he loves.  Have fun and be nice to him.

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To me, autumn is beer season.

Don’t get me wrong – few things in this life are better than having a pint of Guinness with your friends in your favorite warm, dry pub while a spring storm hammers against the windows; or sitting on the porch with an ice-cold lager (or my personal favorite, a lager/7up shandy), spitting out sunflower seed shells and working on your sandal-tan; or curling up with a big bottle of something dark, sweet, warm and brain-numbing in front of the fire with that special someone… or, if you’re me, the dog.

Beer can, and should, be enjoyed at any time of the year. But beer, in this writer’s opinion, is as essential a part of autumn as falling leaves, school bells ringing for the first time in months, and slipping on thick jeans, a sweater and a jacket, and taking a long walk down the streets at night. Autumn is when things start to slow down, when everything living lets out a big sigh of relief, when the year’s end seems like a concrete, rather than nebulous, point. Beer is the perfect liquid companion for this time: for example, nothing beats cracking open a bottle in the same motion as clicking on the TV to watch the game (for most of my countrymen the game is first football games, but for me it’s the tail end of baseball season, even if my beloved Red Sox didn’t do so well this year). The first thing I reach for when I come in from raking the leaves is a room-temp brown ale or stout, to warm me back up, and this particular autumn will always have a special place in my heart, because a few worthy compatriots and I have thrown in our respective chips and are going to take our first attempts at home brewing.

Yes, friends and neighbors, I think autumn is beer time in ways none of the other seasons can quite match. The question then, of course, is which beer should you have with you at all times in this most glorious of seasons? I’m a big proponent of “as many as possible!” for the answer, but my esteemed host has only so much patience for loquacious Americans, so I shall limit my suggestions to my two favorite autumnal brews.

The first of these is Dogfish Head’s Punkin’ Ale, brewed in coastal Delaware. Dogfish is the poster child of craft breweries, and I’m not just saying that because they are, in a lot of ways, my local brewery (a short jaunt up I-95 from where I live, and you’re practically there) – they go out of their way to make beer that doesn’t quite taste like anything else, and Punkin’ is no different. Now, the autumn season is awash in pumpkin ales (and even a few pumpkin lagers, rumor tells me, though I confess that the idea doesn’t really sit that well with me), and there are plenty of amazing ones out there, but Punkin’ still manages to stands out as something completely different. It’s not actually my favorite pumpkin beer: that honor goes to O’Fallon Brewery’s simply-named Pumpkin. However, their distribution isn’t as widespread as Dogfish Head, and I don’t want to just tell all you fine people about a beer you’d be hard-pressed to track down (if you live in the middle section of the Mississippi River Valley, you’re in luck, and I highly recommend the O’Fallon beer), and even though I like Pumpkin better, I do believe that Punkin’ is a better-made brew, and certainly a more complex one.

First things first – Punkin’ is made by taking a pretty basic brown ale recipe (if I ignore all the beer’s other flavors, which is hard, I suppose I’d compare it to a smoother Newcastle), and then adding to it real roasted pumpkin, brown sugar (I presume as part of the bottling process, though don’t hold me to that), allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg, which are your pretty standard pumpkin beer spices. It comes in at 7% alcohol by volume, which is a pretty heady amount if you’re not used to it, and even if you are, three of these guys will get you feeellliiiinng preeeettyyy meeeeeelllooooow real quick. It’s probably a good thing they’re usually sold in four-packs.

Right off the bat, you can taste the cinnamon and nutmeg, so strong you can almost chew it. The distinctive warming flavor of a brown ale is next. Something I should mention right now: this is a beer you really don’t need to stick in the fridge any longer than twenty minutes or so, and I don’t even do that. Straight out of the case at room temperature, this beer is ready to go, and indeed chilling it will dull a lot of the really great flavors, and it will absolutely kill the aroma, which is all roasted pumpkin.

That’s the thing, too: Punkin’s pumpkin (say that ten times fast) is much more a treat for the nose than it is for the mouth – there’s not a whole lot of pumpkin or pumpkin pie flavor, so much as there’s “Thanksgiving Dinner” flavor. One of my brewing buddies exclaimed halfway through his first bottle of Punkin’ “and the snozzberries taste like snozzberries!”, referencing, of course, the entire-meal-in-a-stick-of-gum from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. There’s hints of roasted turkey, and even steamed vegetables, which is very strange to taste in a beer, but the folks I’ve shared it with all agree that it’s not a bad taste, just unusual. This would, in fact, be a perfect beer to have with that big autumnal family gathering, because the flavors just line up so perfectly. Of course, its festive flavor and high alcohol content also make it one hell of a party beer – bring it to your next gathering (especially if you know everyone else is bringing yellow fizzy beer), and be prepared to make a lot of new friends, thanks to your delicious and dizzying contribution!

In short, Punkin’ is a well-crafted and tasty spin on an old autumn classic, and though its differences set it apart from more traditional pumpkin beers, they also set it above them for the same reasons.

Second, we have Hoptober, from the New Belgium Brewing Company out of Fort Collins, Colorado. The best way I can describe Hoptober is this: beer, with extra beer, with a side dish of beer and beer for desert. Let me explain – as New Belgium (the same company that makes Fat Tire, one of the most popular craft beers in the United States, and one of my first loves) proudly proclaims on the side of their bottle, this thing is just absolutely packed with as many things that makes beer… well, beer, as humanly possible.

Take the malts, for example – it’s a balanced mix of pale malt, wheat malt, rye, and oats. Now, I am an absolute malt fanatic, and I love thinking about how different grains will interact to create new flavors, and even to me this is a hell of an audacious mix. In the wrong hands, this would end up tasting probably like a whole lot of nothing, a strange, homogenous mix that doesn’t actually have any of the characteristics of any of these malts. But these aren’t the wrong hands, they’re New Belgium’s hands, and what you end up with is something that has all the crispness of a pale ale and all the creamy smoothness of an oatmeal stout, and the texture and mouthfeel comes in at least three waves that I could taste. This is definitely a beer where you want to let a few seconds pass between sips – you’ll be glad you did.

Now, we get to the beer’s namesake, it’s hop content. I’ll admit, I was a little scared when I read what all went into this thing – I’m not, in general, a hophead, and while I do love the scent and flavor of a well-balanced hoppy beer (I’m thinking here of Stone Brewery’s Arrogant Bastard or Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde), I do have my threshold, and the following ingredients looked like they might surpass it. Hoptober is made with no less than five varieties of hops, these being Centennial, Cascade, Sterling, Williamette, and Glacier. I’m not sure when during the process they were added, or in what amounts, though I’d bet my bottom dollar that the Cascade came in towards the end, as that’s the most prominent hop aroma in the beer.

What I was forgetting is that even though there are many varieties of hops used, that doesn’t mean that NBBC made the mistake of using massive amounts of each. The hops are balanced, layered, and ultimately they each contribute a little something of their own to the beer. As previously stated, the aroma is mostly Cascade (at least to my nose), but the flavor is a wonderful mix of floral and spicy notes, which just permeate the thick, malty character of the beer, so that this is the drinking equivalent of eating a 9-grain, just-came-out-of-the-oven, foot-thick loaf of delicious bread. This seems to be a thing with New Belgium, as I’ve heard their Fate Tire described, accurately I think, as being like drinking a warm, buttery biscuit or English muffin (one wonders what they call them in England).

Something very impressive about this beer is how little the flavor changes with the temperature. I drank a 40 oz. bottle just as it came out of the fridge, and it took me until it was nicely warmed up to room temperature to finish it, and I really couldn’t tell you which end of the spectrum I prefer. This beer really doesn’t care how ice-cold or hand-warm it is, it’s still gonna taste just as good.

I recommend Hoptober all by itself, or if you are going to have it with food, have it with a thick-cut slice of warm multigrain or black bread with a little butter on it. The flavors here really stand by themselves, and they really need to. On the other hand, I can see a multitude of cooking uses for this beer – using this in beer bread is what comes to mind immediately, but I can see this going into pie crust and gravy to make the wheatiest, most healthsome-tasting meat and veggies pie you’ve ever had, and a true autumn treat at that!

Yes, friends, autumn is our season, and we should make the most of it with the best beer we can get our hands on. These two are my personal picks, but as I said at the beginning, there are whole lakes of other beers to try, many of them seasonal brews that are only available during this time of the year. Read on for more!

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Beer Person of Note: Sam Calagione

I really have to give the founder of Dogfish Head Brewery credit for inspiring me lately.

It’s not even his beer.  To be honest, due to living in Canada, I haven’t tried any of Dogfish Head’s selection aside from Midas Touch, a beer based on a 2700 year-old recipe, when I visited NYC.  The Raison DEtre?  The Namaste? The 60 or 120 Minute IPA?  Nope, nope, nope and nope.  I want to try them in the worst possible way, but geography and lack of a car and money for travel is preventing that.

So what is it about Sam Calagione that is inspiring me?  His passion.  Say what you want about him, but he is a man who is EXCITED about beer and wants to share that excitement with the world.  He’s also one of the first people I’ve come across that actively endorses going as wild as possible with ingredients and promotes experimentation.  Sure a lot of the books I’ve read say that you can do it and it’s fun, but Sam Calagione is the first person I’ve read about who shows that it can be done and be rather tasty to boot.  And if it’s not tasty then so what?  Just keep getting out there.

But this endorsement of experimentation of beer styles isn’t just a call to other brewers.  It’s also a call to beer drinkers to try something new.  And while that’s been said many times by many people, I have to give credit to Calagione for being one of the louder voices.

As some of my readers know, the tail end of 2010 was when I started getting more interested in beer and was kind of looking at home brewing.  So it was luck, I guess, that introduced me to the existence of Calagione through the (sadly) short-lived Discovery Channel show he starred in called Brew Masters, which came out in November.  And in the few episodes it ran (still waiting on that final sixth one, Discovery Channel) I found that I got excited to try new things in both brewing and tasting beer.

Doesn’t that show look great?  It was.

While I’m currently reading and getting a lot out of his book Brewing Up A Business, the one I REALLY can’t wait to get my hands on is Extreme Brewing.  Here’s part of the book’s description:

 “While recipes are included for classic ales and lagers, Extreme Brewing emphasizes the hybrid styles that have helped put Dogfish Head’s beers on the map. Using fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, readers can create their own unique flavor combinations for truly world-class beers.”

It sounds like an amazing template book to get one started.  He makes the recipes as simple as possible so you can focus on making something unique and original.  I like that.

And that’s why I admire the man.  He loves going wild and weird with ingredients and is incredibly vocal in encouraging others to do the same.

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