I remember the good old days, when friends would watch in horror as I sipped a Rauchenfelser Steinbräu, the smoke and stone-infused ale from Kyrgystan that owes its bold flavor to super-heated granite stones used to heat the unfermented beer. Or the shock on a stranger's face when they took my recommendation for a Duchesse de Bourgogne — a Flemish red ale with a tart, almost vinegar-like flavor — and actually liked it.
The craft beer explosion has greatly expanded the palates of the general public, and it seems like everyone's enjoying a sour lambic, a beer made with hot chilis, or any number of varieties of decreasingly odd and exotic beers. This is a good thing, as people are more open to trying new things, and thus create a forum for strange ideas.
Consider the aforementioned lambic and its cousin, the gueuze. These beers are spontaneously fermented by wild airborne yeasts in a small region of Belgium. They belong to a broader category of sour beers, usually a result of the introduction of lactobacillus bacteria to the unfinished beer. Similar styles, such as Germany's Berliner Weisse, achieve this intentional contamination by producing a "sour mash" of grains to be used in the brewing process.
Sour beers range from subtly tart to full-on lip-puckering, as is the case with Peg's Cantina in Gulfport and their excellent Rainbow Jelly Donut, categorized as a Berliner Weiss. Peg's brewer Doug Dozark said his creation utilizes a grain bill consisting entirely of sour-mashed grains. Tampa's Cigar City Brewing also makes an outstanding sour beer in the form of their Sea Bass, a "dark-bodied farmhouse ale," based on the saison style. I've seen it on draft around the Bay Area, and I highly recommend it.
Some brewers go for a different extreme, focusing less on bold flavors alone and more on potency. High-gravity beers are usually at least 12 percent alcohol by volume but can even get up to 50 percent ABV in rare instances. Samuel Adams produces Utopias yearly, which is aged in scotch and port barrels before being bottled in miniature copper brew-kettles. Topping out at 27 percent in its most recent release, it's more like a cordial than a beer. Dogfish Head's 120-Minute IPA, which generally clocks in around 20 percent, is incredibly rich and filled with hops, which are continuously added to the brewing batch for each minute of its 2-hour boil.
Then there's Rauchbier ("Smoke beer" in German), which uses malted barley dried over open flames, giving the beer an unusual, smoky flavor that friends have described as "bacon." As a vegan, I'll gladly take my bacon flavor in the form of a cool German lager. Schlenkerla and Spezial are the two Bamburg breweries still producing this rustic style, and the former can often be found at specialty beer bars and craft beer retailers, such as Shep's Deli in St. Petersburg.
Of course, we can't forget about chili beers — yes, chili, as in jalepeño. Again, these can range from extreme, such as the Cave Creek Chili Beer, which has an actual jalapeño pepper in the bottle, to subtle, such as Rogue's Chipotle Ale. I tried Birrificio del Ducato's Verdi Imperial Stout at Cafun Café on the Bayou's annual beer festival last year, and it was similarly mild, with only a hint of the chilis contained within. And of course, Cigar City has chimed in with a creation of their own, the delicious Hunahpu's Imperial Stout, containing an outrageous bill of flavor additions — ancho and pasilla peppers, Peruvian cacao nibs, Madagascar vanilla beans, and cinnamon.
If you take a look around, you won't believe the flavors that creative brewmasters are incorporating into beer. Perhaps you've even heard about Mamma Mia! Pizza Beer, which claims to be the "world's first culinary beer," incorporating tomato, oregano, basil, and garlic into their recipe. It might be a total dud, but I'd love to try it. For the adventurous among us, look forward to more and more strange and exotic styles being created as new brewers from the craft beer era enter the fold — it's going to get interesting.