Long Live Big Beer

In the recent past I’ve climbed atop this slippery soapbox to advocate on behalf of all manner of small brews representing the many different ways “small” can be defined. I’ve praised beers from tiny producers, low-ABV session beers, quieter styles that showcase barley and craftsmanship rather than hops and barrels, and even half-pint pours of all of the above. And I meant every word of it. What I’m about to say in no way indicates a diminished respect for these great, lesser beers.

I friggin’ love giant beer. I’m not talking about Big Beer of the Bud/Miller/Coors order — although I think a lot of those brews have times and places, too — but otherwise my passion for large beer extends to just about every other interpretation of the concept. I’m a sucker for high-proof beers, exaggerated serving sizes, and aggressive styles. And of course I don’t like big price tags, but they’re mainly a practical deterrent, rarely a philosophical one. For the most part, if I’m attracted to a beer I’ll pay whatever my wallet can muster. Now let’s discuss each of these various ways in which big is beautiful.

High-ABV Beers

There’s a very good restaurant near me called Puritan and Company. Sunday night I ordered a delicious local American-style bitter, Notch’s Between the Waves. The bartender complimented my choice and lamented that it’s not a runaway bestseller, which he attributed to it being classified as a less-familiar style rather than the pale ale it could pass for with its bright and fruity Citra and Mosaic profile. I nodded and drank and thought, “Yeah, that, and it’s also only 4.1 percent ABV.” Not to suggest that the point of drinking craft beer is to ever, under any circumstances, veer an inch away from stone-cold sobriety, but for whatever other reason a lot of perfectly responsible customers look for a bit of bang for their bucks.

But let’s speak no more of the grubby cost-effectiveness of the hard stuff. That appeals to you or it doesn’t, and it’s cool with me either way. Thrift aside, it must be noted that a great many of our richer, more complex, more interesting beers tend to be on the potent side. Over the summer I lucked into a few fresh bottles of Founder’s Devil Dancer, a 12-percent triple IPA dry-hopped 10 different ways. It’s the sort of beer that evolves as it warms up a bit, so there’s no need to rush all 12 ounces straight down your gullet; stretch the party out for the time you typically devote to a pair of regular-strength IPAs and you’re right where you need to be. And you’ll be a better body for the journey through just about every desirable American pale ale attribute (plus a mildly vegetal edge that might not be everyone’s bag). I’m not qualified to say this wild range of flavors can’t be replicated in a session-strength beer, but I know I’ve never come across one.

And where would we be without barleywine, imperial stout and, in a pinch, high-gravity malt liquor? Strong beer is essential beer. 

Large-Format Beers

I adore them all: pitchers, imperial pints, tallboys, liter mugs, 750-milliliter cork-and-cagers, 23-ounce Coors Lights for $2.99 at family-oriented chain restaurants (aka the “Bad Dad Special”), crowlers, even 22-ounce bombers when they’re not a markedly worse bargain than the same beer in a 6-pack.

Pitchers foster both camaraderie and competition; it’s fun to share beer with your friends, and even more fun to siphon off more than you’re entitled to! Imperial pints usually hold Guinness, which is nice. Pint-sized cans are becoming more and more popular, thanks largely to Heady Topper and PBR, and while I don’t think New England needs another $15 four-pack of 16-ounce IPA any time soon, I wholeheartedly endorse the burgeoning trend of the craft tallboy sixer. Liter mugs are silly and impractical and immediately improve their beholder’s mood by 100 percent; they’re also the best way to enjoy session beer. 750s make beer feel fancy and special and wine-like, and they also tend to hold the deluxe stuff. Oversized macro lagers have rescued countless mall trips, crowlers make you feel like a big, strong beer monster, and bombers have their flaws (mostly that they’re usually overpriced) but they’re often the only way to get at high-class, small-batch beers.

This category of bigness encompasses so many beers that it would be impossible to pick a favorite, but there is one that occupies a special place in my heart. Lagunitas founder Tony Magee did a lot of self-righteous chest-thumping about the virtues of independence in the years before he exercised his freedom to sell half his company to Heineken, so I understand why there are a lot of conscientious Lagunitas objectors in the craft-beer community. I’m still a fan of their hoppier offerings, though, with my favorite being America’s finest quart of beer, the 32-ounce bottle of Lagunitas Sucks.

Big-Ambition Beers

I’ve never been to Beer Advocate’s Extreme Beer Fest because the name’s a little Mountain Dew’d for my fragile self-image, and also because Beer Advocate events aren’t my scene in general, but I admit that it sounds like a great time. I’ll try any beer. Last winter I had a pastrami stout from Rhode Island’s Revival Brewing that was brewed with black pepper, coriander, fennel, caraway, and mustard seed, and it was as almost as good as it was weird. I love barrel-aged beers. Whiskey barrels are still the most popular by far, but rum and brandy are making their moves, and the slow but steady proliferation of gin-wood-aged ales is my favorite micro-trend of 2016. Sour beers, brettanomyces beers, and funkily adjuncted beers are always welcome in my coffee mug. Sure, a lot of wacky beers are just dumb stunts, but the vast majority I’ve encountered are well-thought-out (if not always well-executed) attempts to bring something new to the table.

One of my all-time favorite beers combines all the various attributes of a great, big beer. Boulevard Saison-Brett is only sold in stores by the 750 ml, it’s 8.5-percent ABV, it costs a hefty-but-fair $15 per bottle, and it’s hard to imagine a more ambitious brew than a bottle-conditioned, dry-hopped saison that debuted nearly 10 years ago, well before most educated American drinkers had even heard the phrase “farmhouse ale.” I’m going to buy a bottle today to squirrel away for a special occasion — David Ortiz’s last at-bat? Thanksgiving? Sundown? And I recommend you do the same.

None of this means I’ll ever turn my back on smaller beers. In fact, that Notch Between the Waves might be the best beer I drank in September. I’d go as far as to call it the ideal beer to drink by the liter.