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The New Standard
Specialty Beer Evolution and Revolution

Posted: November 10, 2011

By Tom Sulinski

Each year at the World Beer Championships, we open our doors and prepare our palates, for what we like to categorize as “specialty beers”. This session always brings forth a discussion of what exactly specialty beers are, and more so, how this changing definition of specialty beers attributes to the overall landscape of beer. Led by American ingenuity, this segment of beers continues to alter the old guard, pushing the standard definitions of style and convention, creating a new standard of brewers and beers alike. With the increase of brewers brewing specialty beers, many of these once “special” beer styles have become new standards for not just brewers, but drinkers as well. Case in point: barrel-aged beers.

The storage of beer in non-neutral wood by American craft brewers has become so commonplace that last year we removed these barrel-aged beers from our annual specialty beers tasting, only to readmit versions of these beers into this year’s specialty beers review. It has become increasingly common to see a barrel aged stout or porter, perhaps even a barley wine, but an American wild ale? A barrel-aged doppelbock? Yes, the practice of barrel aging has become refined, becoming part of the norm, but to marry this technique with a style that is not commonly aged is something to take note of. Shmaltz Brewing Company continues to change the misconception of what lagers can be one beer at a time with their Coney Island line of lagers, and their Barrel Aged Human Blockhead Imperial American Bock (93 points) is not any different; perhaps one of the most unique lagers from one of the most unique breweries today. Connecticut’s Willimantic Brewing Co. also impressed our judges with a barrel-aged American wild ale penned as Willi Wonder Ale (89 points), a wonder indeed.

The addition of fruit has also become a commonplace practice, with many “fruited” versions of macro lagers dominating store shelves in summer months, but these are not the beers we’re discussing here. Fruit beers should be a harmonious marriage of fruit and beer, with both the fruit and beer components in balance, complementing each other, often a difficult feat. Setting the benchmark for fruit beers from this year’s review was Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Raspberry Ale (98 points), Bastone Brewery’s Raspberry Midnight Oil Imperial Stout (95 points), Lexington Avenue Brewery’s Red Whitey (94 points), and Unibroue’s Quelque Chose (93 points).

For some post-prohibition brewers, adjuncts have long been used to lessen beer, diminishing flavor and body, but for this new bred of brewers, adjuncts are being used not to diminish, but to amplify. Gluten-free beers are brewed from cereals that are commonly referred as adjuncts in lesser beers, but in the case of gluten-free beers, calling these cereals adjuncts would misses the point. Brewed for a growing portion of the population intolerant to gluten, these beers are quickly becoming more than niche products, with many being incorporated as permanent fixtures in both on-and off-premise locations. Belgium’s Green’s Brewery was a pleasant surprise with their trio of Belgian-style gluten free ales including Quest Tripel Blond Ale (93 points), Discovery Amber Ale (88 points) and Endeavour Dubbel Ale (86 points). Another revelation was Spain’s Damm Brewery’s Daura Lager (90 points); brewed from de-gluttonized barley malt, this gluten free lager is a great example of what gluten free beer can be.

No one knows what the definition of specialty beers will be next year, or how the standard will evolve, but one thing is for certain, we are fortunate to have so many opportunities to discover something special. And if that is the new standard, we’re in. Cheers!

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