This is a subject that I have been trying to get a grasp on for a while now. I am having trouble making a stand, as my understanding keeps being shaped like sand dunes on a windy day by my various conversations with people and my continued sampling of beer. As the song goes, I don't want to start any blasphemous rumors...the following is just my opinion.
For those of you who know me, I prefer malt over hops and ales over lagers, but not exclusively so. I understand and enjoy balance in beers. I find the recent popularity of bigger and stronger beers and the race to infuse the ultimate amount of hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma into a single beer a curiously and exceptionally American norm.
We in America like to go to extremes, for better or worse. When we do this, we often look back and call it a golden age. For example, in the 1950's big sedans with outrageous tail fins and jet engine motifs were the rage. Every model year the fins grew to an apex in 1959 (see the 1959 Cadillac for reference) with astonishingly impractical dimensions and then abruptly receded. In the late 60's and early 70's the designers of the Pony Cars and later Muscle Cars put everything possible under the hood. It was about absurd power and speed. Americans couldn't get enough, until, of course, they had enough. In 1973, the oil crisis quickly moved consumers away from the heavy, overpowered sports car. In both cases, the trend pushed styling and engineering to the absurd and then sales crashed. One by external forces, the other by (I believe) the boundaries of practicality and good taste. In both cases, even today, who wouldn't like to tool around in a '59 Caddy or rumble down the boulevard in a '68 Ford Cobra GT 350? But as a daily driver? Not me.
So, it is from this perspective that I view the current class of extreme beers, and I draw the line in the sand for myself at the India Pale Ale. I actually like the IPA (people who know me might be surprised, as I have recently acquired this taste, and these are not the IPA I first tasted from Labatt's in the early 1990s), but it is not my daily driver beer. I am especially fond of Great Divide's Titan IPA and especially so their cask conditioned version hand drawn from a beer engine with low carbonation and served at almost room temp (I think the guys running the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) would be proud). This beer is one that I occasionally have. Everything else beyond this is only good in taster format for me. After the sample, I can no longer taste anything but hops and alcohol. So for me, oak aged anything is sipped like whiskey and great around a campfire, and you won't find me having a full glass of Double anything (I generally avoid American Style Anything as well, and never a Texas Style anything either (as in Texas Brown)), even if it is good (ie Pliny from previous posts....it is good, no doubt, but for me, it's a sipper, and maybe occasioned not unlike any Winter Warmer).
The question I have is, are these beers that push the envelope a fad? Are we in the middle of the golden years for these behemoths? Or is this the new normal, that will push even the big boys to experiment with this particular bottled lightning? Will or have these beers pushed the boundary of good taste and as a result will they pass into the night like most Ice Beers? (The Ice Beers were truly an exercise in mass marketing frenzy and was nearly tasteless beer, sorry to invoke them here to make my point). I believe that the answer is a hearty perhaps. I believe that the best examples will remain, so that means that the Pliny family (Elder and Younger) and Dogfish Head family (60, 90, 120 minute) at the head of the pack will remain a popular curiosity, served nationwide in any serious beer joint and some smaller guys known for their boldness and full bodied beers will also mature these styles. For most craft breweries, however, the upper limits will settle somewhere far short of the DIPA, or maybe even the IPA itself. Perhaps it has already begun. How many Rock Bottom Breweries have their Hop Bomb IPA or similar on tap as a regular offering? I don't know the answer to that, or even if that is a fair barometer. It all depends on sales, and what you, the consumer, continue to collectively demand.
What about the Belgians you ask? I have complex relations with those guys too. I need time to come clean, so we will discuss them in a future post.