BeerAdvocate’s Extreme Beer Fest is the perfect staging ground for heightened creativity and pushed boundaries in craft brewing. In the festival’s 16th annual run, “extreme” translated to choice and access alongside aesthetics.

BeerAdvocate brought in 126 breweries slinging a nigh-incalculable total of beers to Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center, bringing a handful of regulars from their lineups along with unique beers brewed specifically to suit the Extreme Beer Fest challenge, “unique” being a humble catch-all for ingredients ranging from chili peppers, to garlic, and even to charred hot dogs, the star of Cambridge Brewing Company’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich.

Hot dogs and beer are a classic pairing; if you’ve never had a beer braised hot dog, you haven’t had a hot dog. But it’s not every day someone makes a beer with hot dogs. “We think that an idea of a beer that we’re brewing exclusively for the Extreme Beer Fest should be funny, ridiculous if possible, but also well made and delicious,” shared Cambridge Brewing Co.’s Head Brewer Will Meyers. To Meyers, Burnt Weeny Sandwich isn’t a “hot dog” beer; it’s a smoked cream ale that happens to have hot dogs and accouterment in it. His logic is strangely compelling. Bonus: CBC’s other offerings were great, too, especially Banryu Ichi, a beer-sake hybrid aged on sugi wood.

Burnt Weeny Sandwich is “extreme” as in “unexpected.” Sneaker Wave, an IPA from CBC’s neighbor, Lamplighter Brewing Co., expressed “extreme” in the curation of materials. Arctic thyme isn’t markedly different from regular-strength thyme on paper, just more delicate, so it’s perfect for complementing IPA hop profiles. IPA, even extreme IPA, is nearly passé in 2019, but Lamplighter reached far and wide, collaborated with Reykjavik’s Borg Brugghús to give the IPA an Icelandic twist, and knocked out the festival’s best IPA.

Not every brewery’s name is built on extreme beers. Take Grand Rapids, Michigan’s Brewery Vivant; they’re known for balance over outlandishness. When preparing for the fest, they kept that in mind and found ways to introduce extremes without throwing the base beer out of whack—as in, for instance, the cleverly named Dracula Goes Vegan. “We originally brewed this beer for our annual Wood-Aged Beer Fest in September 2018,” says Kate Avery, the brewery’s Abbess of Beer. “We had been featuring pickled rainbow beets on our pub menu, in salads and other dishes, all summer and Brian [Kuszynski, “master of wood”], had this wild idea to pair that flavor with blood orange.”

Going further down the rabbit hole is Short’s Brewing Company, another outfit from the Great Lake State. “We don’t really focus on ABV,” explains Scott Newman Bale, Short’s VP. “It’s more about the unusual ingredients, and use of the ingredients. Anything we want to bring is typically made with real ingredients, everything’s fresh.” Carrot Cake, their American Strong Ale, contains real carrots and real ginger—all the pieces of a carrot cake, filtered into beer.

For Brian Eckert of Four Quarters Brewing, the Extreme Beer Festival is a venue for showing off what he tries to do with all of Four Quarters’ Beers. “We kind of try to push that boundary all the time,” he points out, making immediate note of Pickleback, a Heaven Hill bourbon barrel aged sour conditioned on cucumber, honeydew, and dill. Sounds extreme, but not as extreme as Waffle Star, an imperial stout: “We had a local breakfast joint make, like, 100 and some odd Belgium waffles,” he says with a chuckle. Breakfast pastry and beer make excellent bedfellows, but consider how much time it takes just to make enough waffles for 2, and you’ve got an idea of the work that went into Waffle Star’s production.

No matter how hard one tries, they’ll miss the majority of what Extreme Beer Festival has for them to try, and with so many brewers available, there’s guaranteed to be something for every palate. That’s the kind of extreme that’s worth entertaining.

The Best Beers:

10. Pleasant Pils

Highland Park Brewery — Los Angeles, CA

Pilsner– There’s really nothing over the top about a take-me-as-I-am pilsner, but when you’re spending three hours drinking beer that only a mad scientist brewer or a hyperactive six-year-old could imagine, a take-me-as-I-am pilsner is a godsend. Gentle, soothing, with light whiffs of fresh cut hay, Pleasant Pils is a superb Italian version of a classic.

Learn More

9. Dragon’s Milk Reserve: Apple Pie Brandy Barrel

New Holland Brewing Company — Holland, MI

Stout– Just like mom’s apple pie, except mom’s apple pie didn’t clock in at 11% ABV. Compared to New Holland’s other Dragon’s Milk beer, Chocolate Orange, the Apple Pie Brandy Barrel is equally as tasty but considerably more complex, everything associated with apple pie harmonizing with the heft of barrel aging.

Learn More

8. Ghosted

Branch and Blade Brewing — Keene, NH

Sour IPA– IPAs probably shouldn’t drink like a glass of fruit juice, not as matter of taste but a matter of safety; one can easily fool themselves into thinking they’re consuming something non-alcoholic. Fortunately, Ghosted is just a scant 6.5% ABV. Still, it packs tons of apricot and peach flavor with a farmhouse tang all the same.

Learn More

7. Wizard Burial Ground

Brewery Vivant — Grand Rapids, MI

Belgian Quad– Pound for pound, no brewery turned out with a better overarching menu than Brewery Vivant. Is it strange to call a Belgian Quad “cheesy”? Wizard Burial Ground tastes as bready and malty as you please, but the joint effect of its caramel, nougaty sweetness and its starchiness nearly reads as cheddar. Not that that’s a complaint. It’s yummy.

Learn More

6. Bourbon Barrel Aged Deep Space

Barreled Souls — Saco, ME

Imperal Stout– Unsurprisingly, the Extreme Beer Festival had big, burly stouts all over the place, including this behemoth. It’s huge, smoky, malty, and rich, and at 15% ABV, a must-sip rather than swig, but far and away the best of its peers.

Learn More

5. Banryu Ichi

Cambridge Brewing Co. — Cambridge, MA

Strong Ale– This beer/sake hybrid delivered terrifically on subtlety in flavor and mouthfeel. A viscous punch of sweetness contrasts nicely with the booze-forward character of the sake, yielding a brew that hugs your teeth and challenges your palate.

Learn More

4. Carrot Cake

Short’s Brewing Company — Bellaire, MI

Brown Ale–Learn More

3. Sneaker Wave (w/ Borg Brugghus)

Lamplighter Brewing — Cambridge, MA

New England IPA– An IPA is an IPA is an IPA. How best to make an IPA that’s actually worth talking about? Using ingredients that mirror those used in prototypical IPA, but hail from regions unknown to American taste buds. Lamplighter answered that question handily with an exemplary take on the style.

Learn More

2. Pickleback

Four Quarters Brewing — Winooski, VT

Sour Ale– Generally, “pickleback” refers to a shot of whiskey chased with pickle juice or a nibble on a whole dill pickle. So, naturally, the gang at Four Quarters cut out the middleman and brewed the experience into a beer.

Learn More

1. Dracula Goes Vegan

Brewery Vivant — Grand Rapids, MI

Sour Ale– If you hate beets, you at least have to admire how beautifully Dracula Goes Vegan looks in a glass; if you love beets, then this is your jam–an impeccable showcase for the plant’s robust earthiness that doesn’t cancel out the beer’s wild ale identity.

Learn More

Liked this article? Sign up for our newsletter to get the best craft beer writing on the web delivered straight to your inbox.