For Americans, bigger is better. Whether it’s buildings, boobs, buffets, or beer, we want it big enough to block out the sun or at least put us down for the count. When it comes to beer, we celebrate the brewers who go big and bold with their beer-making experiments using creative and crazy combinations of spices, barrels, exotic fruits, and big alcohol. It’s called extreme brewing, and our thirst for it seems unquenchable. The good news is that right now, the world of beer is as exciting and extreme as it ever has been. For proof, read on.

Imperialist Tendencies

First in the anthology of extreme beers are the Imperials. When English brewers began shipping a strong and luxurious stout to Russian Imperial courts, a new style of beer and marketing was born. These days anything bearing this term implies a stronger and more flavorful version of the base style. It’s quite challenging to find a style of beer that an American brewer has not imperialized.

COAST Brewing Blackbeerd, 9.3%, S.C.

The massive Blackbeerd Imperial Stout is matured in used bourbon barrels. Coconut and vanilla oak along with sweet caramel work wonders with the chocolate and smoke elements of the beer.

Evil Twin Brewing Molotov Cocktail, 13%, Gypsy

This aptly named IPA with tropical fruit additions leaves a lingering papaya spice that can be tasted the next day. Ironically, they also offer Bikini Beer, a 2.7 percent IPA, to cover the other end of the spectrum.

New Belgium’s Yuzu 9%, Colo.

Berliner Weisse is typically refreshing and low in alcohol. NB makes a potent version and adds juice from the Japanese Yuzu fruit (imagine a cross between grapefruit and orange), giving this beer a refreshing tartness and making it rather dangerous in warm weather.

Spice It Up

Spices, long considered luxury items, have been used to either class up a great beer or mask flaws in a bad one. Coriander and orange peel are frequent additions from the old country. Peppers, from the new world, are currently making their entrance. The combination of bubbles, alcohol, and endorphin-releasing heat can be quite satisfying.

Westbrook Brewing Mexican Cake, 10.5%, S.C.

This imperial stout, an homage to the drink of Aztec royalty, gets its spice from cinnamon, vanilla, cacao nibs, and habañero peppers. The pepper’s brisk heat gives it a big lift too.

Palmetto Brewery Ghost Rider, 5%, S.C.

Palmetto has released very small amounts of this one-off pale ale, in which ghost chilies are added at kegging time. The citrusy hops and capsicum work very well together, and fans can’t wait to get their hands on more.

Brewing Beer History

Many beers that have fallen from popularity have done so through strange shifts in tastes and more aggressive marketing. Large breweries looking for mass appeal choose the route of the lowest common denominator, completely ignoring local tastes and customs. Smaller, artisanal producers take the opportunity to delve into history and bring beers back to life.

Holy City Brewing Bowens Island Oyster Stout, 5.8%, S.C.
COAST Brewing Bulls Bay Oyster Stout, 5.8%, S.C.

In London, oysters were provided free of charge to entice drinkers to consume more porter. As it turns out, dark roasty porters pair exceptionally well with the salty mineral flavor of oysters. Both Holy City and COAST have capitalized on local oyster harvests, adding oysters, their liquor, and shells to craft a briny brew. And Holy City has even aged its oyster stout in bourbon barrels, which is fairly damned extreme.

Extreme Flattery

Brewers generally drink a bit of everything, from beer and fine wines to liqueurs and spirits, which inspires them to copy techniques, philosophies, and sometimes ingredients that they encounter along the way.

Dogfish Head Noble Rot, 9%, Del.

Overripe and rotting wine grapes destined for the most decadent and expensive of dessert wines are featured in this golden saison. Letting the grapes shrivel on the vine concentrates their flavors and sugars. When added to a fermenting beer those sugars bring the strength of the beer up and leave a dry but complex white wine finish.

Evil Twin Brewing Barrel Aged Spicy Nachos, 5.5%, S.C.

Barrels that have held spirits are frequently used in beer production. These wooden vessels are purchased soon after they are emptied, usually still wet with previous contents. Bourbon is by far the most common, but brandy, Scotch, and rum are becoming more popular. Tequila Barrel Aged Spicy Nachos is a work in progress for the Danish brewer Evil Twin. A corn-heavy pale ale made with jalapeño peppers is currently slumbering in tequila barrels.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.