The Continuing Evolution of Extreme Beer

It can be difficult to find new ways to innovate. That doesn’t mean breweries aren’t trying. Building on a tradition of taking beer past its existing boundaries, some brewers are exploring the oceans, forests, and beyond.

John Holl Jul 6, 2019 - 8 min read

The Continuing Evolution of Extreme Beer Primary Image

By its very nature, beer is extreme. That microbes all around us can, under the right conditions, create a wonderful, flavorful, and inspiring beverage is the true power of nature, and there’s respect that should be paid.

However, some brewers are extreme themselves. While many are happy to walk the path set out for them by the beer itself and brewers who have come before them, there are others who take the notion of what beer can be and how nature can continue to assist and create recipes or finished results and put that beer through its paces, stretch it to the limit, and create beers that are worthy of the word “extreme.”

Ocean Beer

Two years ago, while diving on a shipwreck off the coast of South Africa in the Atlantic Ocean, Nick Bush, the director at Drifter Brewing Company (Cape Town, South Africa) was struck with the realization that the conditions around the ship would be perfect for fermenting beer.

Now, it’s worthy to note that there have been beer bottles rescued from shipwrecks over the years after having spent many decades in the briny deep. While those bottles were never intended for that fate, once they’ve been recovered, brewers have attempted to harvest any remaining yeast to make fresh batches of beer.


But purposefully plunging bottles of beer to the bottom of the ocean is not a normal occurrence. So Driftwood, founded in 2015 and a brewery with buzz in South Africa, decided to brew a Belgian-style tripel, secondary it in champagne bottles, and then leave the bottles on the seabed, about 150 feet below the surface of the water.

The beer ages for about a year, and Bush says that the cold temperature helps to slow the secondary fermentation and that the sway of the current keeps the bottles moving around and the yeast in suspension. Because of the depth, any UV rays from the sun that could cause light-struck damage or other issues are mitigated.

“Doing projects like this keeps our two brewers excited and passionate about the industry,” says brewery spokeswoman Anna Anderson. “Instead of only focusing on the core range of our beers that get brewed frequently, they get to think creatively and be part of a project that is putting our name on the map.” The brewery is already making plans to drop a new batch of beer in order to have it ready for consumers at the end of this year. 

Tree Beer

From the ocean to the forest. In Liberty Lake, Washington, The Hidden Mother Brewery has been making beers, originally inspired by a colonial recipe in which ale was served over pine branches, by incorporating a chainsaw and a flamethrower. While brewing a saison, the brewers head into the nearby forest and cut down a tree (in a recent case, it was a skinny Ponderosa pine tree), bring it back to the brewery, and then, using a canola oil–lubricated electric chainsaw cut a canal, or luge, from top to bottom. They line the canal with the tree’s needles, then run the beer from the hot side through the canal into a filter before it’s pumped back into the brew kettle. Throughout the process, they are blasting the needles with a propane-powered flamethrower to get some additional intense flavor into the final product.


“When you go to the far extreme of beers these days, there are some that are just straight up a bad idea because even with a good execution or ingredients, you can’t taste the beer,” says Brewer Michael Detar. “The key thing is that regardless of how extreme it is, you always need to keep the mentality that it’s beer.” The brewery has made the tree beer a handful of times from their self-made 6-barrel system and even more times when Detar was a homebrewer. Several times, he made a porter with a pine tree and then let it spontaneously ferment.

“Every time we do it, we change something up,” he says. “We’re not a brewery that wants to be stuck in a rut doing the same beers. You see that with the tree beers but also with our mushroom beers and how seasons totally change how we use them, what recipe we use. It’s the same concept but always different.”

The “tree beer” is labor-intensive, but it makes for an interesting take on a classic style as well as a great visual story.

Going Small

And that’s really the big thing with some of these extreme beers and brewing methods: the story. Perhaps no one in the United States, and even beyond, has told that story better than Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware. As a brewer, Calagione has traveled the world to source exotic ingredients, brew beers in different ways, and push the boundaries of what consumers think of as beer.


“I’d say the movement is more alive today than it was 5 years ago, and certainly more so than it was 20 years ago when we first did Aprihop,” he says of the IPA the brewery made that incorporated apricots into an IPA. At the time, adding fruit to the ale was something that people thought of as “not just strange, but wrong.” Collectively, for craft brewers, he says, it’s important to paint outside of the lines, and what American brewers have done to push the envelope in the craft-brewing movement has inspired the rest of the world.

“There are really limitless techniques—from submerging beer to tree beers—and finding new ingredients and then using them in unexpected ways, it’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “It does mean, however, that it’s harder and harder to find the white space. But brewers should follow their inspiration and let their freak flag fly.”

For the brewer who has brewed with moon dust, fermented a beer from spittle, dosed beer with mace and pepper spray, and introduced countless exotic ingredients into general beer-drinking consciousness, these days, he says he’s looking small. “Every journey of extreme beer is difficult, but it’s still at the heart of what we do,” he says. “Lately, instead of going around the world in search of exotic ingredients, we’ve been going inside the molecules of our beer and considering the opportunities to differentiate on that level.”

He points to how the brewery once was going all out with super-high ABV beers, but has recently turned attention to beers on the lower end of the booze spectrum, such as SeaQuench Ale, a session sour mash-up of a crisp Kölsch, a salty gose, and a tart Berliner weiss brewed in sequence with black limes, sour lime juice, and sea salt. Or consider the use of super foods in beers such as SuperEIGHT, a gose made with Hawaiian Red sea salt, prickly pear, mango, boysenberry, blackberry, raspberry, elderberry, kiwi juices, and toasted quinoa.

“On our journey, we went bigger, bigger, small,” he says. “Extreme is innovating whether it’s the beer or brewing. You’ve got to dig deep, have fun.”

John Holl is the author of Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint, and has worked for both Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® and All About Beer Magazine.