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Extreme wines, extreme beers. What’s driving the frenzy?


I wasn’t going to post until this Friday but I had the delightful experience of spending 4 hours yesterday at Oakland Airport only to have Jet Blue announce that all flights into New York were being canceled for the rest of the day due to a monster storm. So here I am back at home, trying to rebook a flight. I picked up our local newspaper, the Oakland Tribune, and came across a story whose headline caught my eye: “Beers with more alcohol, flavor gain market share.” Basically, it said that bland beers like Budweiser and Coors Light are flat in sales, while so-called “extreme beers” are “grabbing a growing market share in the U.S…even at prices ranging from $4 to more than $100 a bottle.” The article quoted the CEO of Bend, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery as saying, “We want somebody to take a drink, stop, look at the glass and say, ‘What was that?’”

Extreme beer. Hmm. Even the Napa Register is reporting on it. A leading beer magazine, Beer Advocate, defines extreme beer this way:

“Often style defying – from beers with alcohol contents that rival spirits, beers aged in bourbon barrels, beers made with enough hops to rip your tongue from your mouth, beers from yore and beers employing exotic ingredients that make one ponder – there’s a bold new concept of brewing in America, and it’s called Extreme Beer.”

Does this remind you of anything? It’s the exact equivalent of the same phenomenon in wine: superripe, high-alcohol, highly-oaked wines of the kind often referred to as Parkeresque.

We have entered, it seems to me, an era in which American consumers are looking for extremes of everything: extreme sports, extreme violence in movies, extreme culinary tastes, extreme vacations. It makes you wonder why. The Biblical and Greek injunction toward moderation in all things has tilted in favor of immoderateness in our new Age of Anxiety, and it seems to be driven by younger people, not the Boomers. Could it be because people under the age of 35 or so no longer believe in the future, and so feel they must cram as much living into the now as they can

P.S. Please check out my new post at Wine Enthusiast.

  1. So… no Bialys?….

    Anyways, I guess when, as a society, we keep upping the any and seeking more and stimuli with more punch and impact, we”ll soon be seeing extreme breathing, extreme sleeping and extreme mediocrity.

  2. Morton Leslie says:

    I agree with your connecting it to younger people, though I look at the youthful interest in extremes as testing the boundaries and a normal part of growing up. In many ways the American wine drinker is still immature and testing the extremes. Sooner or later, age and maturity will win out, and they will be worried about the waistline and downing Miller lite.

  3. Raising three daughter in front of Sesame Street – because the featured letter of the day helped them to be super readers by the time they entered kindergarten, and the featured number of the day helped them to be analytical – because we added and subtracted and multiplied as their curiosity had been totally piqued by kindergarten – I coined my own phrase, “Sesame Street mentality,” aka, living in sound bites. Hit ’em hard, hit ’em fast, and deliver your message in cleverly crafted bullet points… Take away the flowery speech, take away the superlatives, and just deliver the message (of beer, or wine, or blueberries) with very little pomp and circumstance. In fact, I may have stayed too long at this party explaining what I think. My kids call me an “over explainer.” There it all is… We’ve got to hit them hard and fast, and move away from the delivery, if we’re to totally get our point across. Where it’s all headed? I remember my grandfather saying to me, “I’m glad this is your world, and not mine.”

  4. I’ve been a reader of the BeerAdvocate for years, and am a fan of the more exotic and unusual beers. I’m not crazy about the the usage of ‘Extreme’ in reference to beer, or just about anything else for that matter, it conjures up visions of bad mountain dew commercials. I do believe there is something in the boundary pushing movement surrounding ‘Extreme’ beer. Sure, plenty of people believe anything worth doing is worth overdoing, but at the core of it all, there are a group of insanely creative brewers playing with wild yeast/bacterial fermentation, barrell aging, exotic/unique ingredients, and yet they are doing it with a deft hand and a respect for balance. Which is the problem we’ve suffered in the wine world for years, the overoaked, overextracted, palate bombs have no sense of balance or restraint. They may taste good at the first sip, but frankly, they drink like crap. I don’t have any answers as to why we’ve become a culture of hedonistic palates, but I often think so many of us have grown up suckling upon the sweet tit of the cola gods, and that is a hard taste to get out of our mouths.

  5. I don’t know about you Steve, but when I take the family out of this place I’m going to make darn sure nobody turns around to look back lest they be turned to a pillar of salt.

    But I mean, really – marketers love this “extreme” thing because it allows them to sell more stuff to the simple-minded short-attention-span sensation-craving automatons we all must be for that kind of marketing to work.

    I used to think that it was a peculiar “American” mania to believe that if a little is good a lot more is lust-worthy, and if a lot is bad than any at all is intolerable. But more and more I have come to suspect that this either-or dichotomy of absolutes is not how most Americans view the world or live their lives – it is just a bill of goods sold to us by politicians and Madison Avenue.

    “Extreme beer” – bleeaaash! Just give me an Ayinger Fest Marzen – extreme enough for me.

  6. Arthur, I was lucky enough to score one bagel and lox but otherwise it was a whirdwind of meetings and tastings. The bialys will have to wait!

  7. Morton, you’re right about that. I still can’t look at old pictures of myself in a Nehru jacket. Anyhow I’ve started to become concerned that maybe young people are moving toward cocktails and beer because they’re more “exciting” and away from wine.

  8. Jon, “the sweet tit of cola gods.” You must be a writer! Nice metaphor. Anyhow, for what it’s worth, older people since at least the Greeks wondered why younger people were going to the dogs (or the tit of the cola gods, as it were). As for beer, I discovered years ago how amazing and incredible it can be. I’m not a big beer imbiber but I have tremendous respect for the best brewers.

  9. John, the marketers! Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. I look back to my wayward youth and remember the “extremes” I went to that shocked my parents. When I was about 16 and started wearing a white button dress shirt without tucking it in, my Dad almost had a heart attack! Can you imagine. Young kids just want to have fun. The way I look at it is, if they’re supporting our small brewers and wineries, that’s great.

  10. Jo, great observation. Yet that’s the reality. The younger gen was raised on MTV where no image is allowed to remain longer than .08 seconds. Bam bam bam and then bam again. Heaven forbid anyone should be bored! They might actually have to do some self reflection or — worse — talk to the person next to them.

  11. Too funny and dead on…

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