Beer curiosities from across the brew-niverse
The international beer scene is constantly surprising us with new and extraordinary beverages. Beyond the realms of the German Purity Law, brewers are using weird and wonderful ingredients which, despite their dubious nature, are still able to win us over from time to time with their original flavor profiles.
Before the German Purity Law was passed in 1516, brewers would pretty much throw anything they could get their hands on into the brewing kettle. These frequently included such delights as ox gall, deadly nightshade and toadstools, which could often lead to illness–and sometimes even death! It’s safe to say, then, that bizarre recipes are by no means a rarity in the history of beer.
In Germany alone, there are around 5000 varieties of beer, although admittedly the majority of these are brewed using only water, hops, malt, and yeast. It is the Belgians who have had the most success in preserving their traditional recipes over the centuries. Their beers are prepared with fresh strawberries, cherries or peaches, and still enjoy popularity among connoisseurs. But it is only now that modern brewers are beginning to experiment again. In the blossoming craft beer scene, brews are prepared using coriander, rosemary or exotic varieties of pepper. Creative brewers have also been known to use vanilla pods, lemongrass or fresh chili varieties.
Even if today people are no longer dying after ingesting weird beer ingredients, international brewers still continue to amaze us with curiosities and unusual brews. Surely one of the craziest examples is a beer which is exported from Iceland each year. Around 100 kilometers north of the capital Reykjavik, close to the little coastal town of Borgarnes, a tiny brewery is making headlines in the global brewing scene each spring. Two years ago, the “Brugghús Steðja”, founded in 2012, produced a beer using the bones of a fin whale which had been ground down into a flour. News of this beer named “Hvalur Þorrabjór Steðja” quickly spread around the world, eliciting storms of protest from animal rights campaigners.
The Icelanders produced this lager for their North Germanic opera festival “Thorrablot,” which dates back to Viking times and is part of Nordic folk culture. This includes the celebration of ancient customs between January and February each year, similar to how we eat a Christmas goose or Passover lamb. After the unexpected interest in their first batch of “whale ale,” the brewer even managed to outdo themselves with last year’s recipe. This time round, for “Hvalur 2,” the Icelanders used fin whale testicles instead of the bone flour! The marine mammal’s sensitive parts are cured, salted and then smoked over sheep’s dung according to an old Icelandic tradition. At 5.1 percent, the whale beer is quite light, but it still packs a punch in terms of flavor. The “Hvalur” beverage doesn’t taste anything like fish and instead fruity notes of red berries are combined with a light smoky aroma.
Thousands of kilometers to the west of Iceland, the Rogue farm brewery in Oregon has also caused quite a stir with its revolting ingredients: The strangest beer brewed up by the self-styled “rogues,” who now stock around 60 varieties, has to be their “Beard Beer.” The idea behind this ale apparently started as a joke, with Master Brewer John Maier plucking a few hairs from his bushy, salt-and-pepper beard and adding them to the mix. Maier is said to have started growing his beard in 1978, and claims that it has come into contact with over 15,000 beers over this time. No surprise, then, that a yeast culture perfectly suited to the brewing process was actually found in his facial hair.
The Rogue brewers were only too eager to try out this natural culture in the brewing kettle. The result: An “American Wild Ale,” that doesn’t taste anywhere near as terrible as many might imagine. Quite the opposite in fact: It yields subtly fruity notes, a pleasant flavor, and a lightly tangy finish. And there really is no hint of greasy beard in this 4.8-percent ale! This is thanks to the quality of the other ingredients, such as Munich and Pilsner malt, and flowery Sterling hops. These all combine to give the beer an appetizing golden hue in the glass, citrus notes in the nose, and a light honey sweetness on the tongue. But beers like these might seem relatively normal if industry rumors are to be believed; there is allegedly one US brewer with a passion for experimentation far in excess of John Maier’s. It is said that this mystery man actually cultivated the yeast for his beer in his own underpants! Whether or not this suits the tastes of beer lovers is something each of them needs to decide for themselves.
Thankfully, the techniques used in neighboring Canada are not quite so strange: Here, the creative Steamworks brewery in Vancouver, which still uses steam pipes from pioneer times to heat its brewing kettles, flavors its “Killer Cucumber” ale with–you guessed it–organic cucumbers. The top-fermented beer is highly carbonated and is intended to be a refreshing summery drink. A bread-like malty aroma combined with fresh lemony tones and a certain acerbity add to the zesty cucumber notes. The beer is finished with Belgian yeast, with a hint of apricots and black pepper. “Killer Cucumber” is a real thirst-quencher for beer fans, and can even fulfill your salad requirements at a barbecue!
There is one beer from the Netherlands, however, that vegetarians should avoid at all costs. “Kwispel,” which translates to something like “wagging tail,” is non-carbonated, alcohol-free, and brewed using a hearty beef broth–all pretty nutritious stuff, and this meaty brew can even be considered a healthy food supplement. This particular beer is, however, not intended for human connoisseurs, but rather for those with four legs. That’s right, this beefy brew was specially developed with dogs in mind, just like its Belgian counterpart “Snuffele,” which is also available to buy online in a choice of beef or chicken flavor. The joke with this “beer for Fido” is that singles no longer have to spend their evenings drinking alone.