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You call this a beer?

One has no bubbles, another is aged in oak. Craft beers dare to go in new directions to tap into adventurous tastes.

August 10, 2005|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

BEER lovers, don't despair. So what if a new Gallup Poll delivered the ominous news that wine has finally caught up, and may now surpass, beer as America's favorite alcoholic beverage? That doesn't tell the whole story.

Beer has a friendly challenger too: beer itself. That is, the more flavorful and adventurous drink we call craft beer is gaining ground on common beer faster than anything else, wine included.

In 2004, the quickest-growing segment of the alcoholic beverage industry in the U.S. was craft beer, not wine. Earlier this year it was reported that craft beer sales grew 7%. That turns out to be more than twice the 2.7% increase in wine or the 3.1% growth in spirits, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Assn.

The explanation? Craft beer is getting better all the time, not to mention sometimes more deliciously wild than ever imagined. This summer, for instance, one brewer was so proud of his new 50-proof beer that he cracked the $100-a-bottle price barrier -- and that's without a single bubble of carbonation or a trace of the familiar foamy head. Think Cognac, not Coors.

The "revolution" in American craft brewing is now a generation old. But rather than growing cautious with success, brewers seem ever more adventurous; they're pushing their beers into realms never imagined. At the same time, beer drinkers are becoming more appreciative and similarly daring.

Something else has been occurring too. As if in anticipation of the Gallup numbers, those who love beer are out to challenge wine on its home turf: the dinner table. Pairing beer with food has long been part of the brew-pub culture, but increasingly it is an idea being tried out on white tablecloths.

"For the last 18 months or so, we've been trying to really spread the word," says Ray Daniels, director of marketing for the Brewers Assn. "What we're seeing is that it's finally broken through -- food and beer pairings are no longer just something within the industry. Chefs have taken up the idea, and so have culinary schools."

Don't get too carried away just yet.

Although home cooks have better choices because supermarkets have expanded their selections of more flavorful beers, it's likely to be a while before diners can expect their favorite restaurants to greet them with competing sommeliers, one for beer and one for wine. But the idea isn't laughable anymore.

Traveling around town recently, one could taste the creative ferment behind fine beer.

For more than a decade, Jim Koch of the Boston Brewing Co. has been in the vanguard of redefining our very concept of what beer can be. Beginning in 1993 with Samuel Adams Triple Bock, he has been ratcheting up the alcohol and flavor concentrations in small batches of limited-edition brews that have come to be known in the industry as "extreme beers."

This summer he did it again. His brewers unveiled the 2005 edition of the brandy-colored, sharply aromatic and seriously alcoholic Sam Adams Utopias. A blind tasting was held in Santa Monica as part of a nine-city series for the media and distributors.

This was not your ordinary tasting.

Here was an uncarbonated after-dinner beer put up against two of the best digestifs the wine world has produced: Taylor Fladgate 1994 Vintage Porto from Portugal and Martell X.O. Supreme Cognac from France.

It was a moment to spin a beer drinker's head.

When words fail

FOR one thing, most hop-heads lack the vocabulary to discuss beer -- beer, mind you -- in the wine-and-spirits vernacular necessary to convey a sense of Utopias: "warm, burnished, caramelized apples, tarte Tatin, oloroso Sherry ... silkier than Madeira but less velvety than tawny Port ... odors of Sherry and fortified wine, some residual sugar sweetness ... a fine, slightly malty, lingering finish

Let's face it, except for the last remark, beer drinkers don't tend to talk that way. For another thing, are we ready to drink our beer at room temperature in petite brandy glasses, a tiny sip at a time to finish off a five-course dinner? Clean our plates and then have a beer? Really.

Utopias is a beer created to make a point. It claims the record as the most potent beer brought to market, at 25% alcohol, or 50 proof. Only 8,000 individually numbered 750-milliliter, kettle-shaped bottles were produced, and while they are available, they cost $100 to $119 retail.

Although it looks and tastes far more like fortified wine than what we know as beer, Utopias is no pretender. It is brewed like other beers from beer ingredients -- water, malted barley, hops and several types of yeast, including yeast normally used in Champagne, with the addition of maple syrup. Utopias is then aged in oak bourbon barrels to draw out the flavor.

But what about carbonation? Doesn't beer need at least a little fizz to deserve the name? Not, it seems, if you don't want it to. You can think of it this way: Most cars are painted, but if you produce one without paint it's still a car.

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