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“Extreme” Beers Push Boundaries And Pull Customers

November 17, 2011

The craft beer movement has entered a new dimension with the emergence of so-called “extreme” beers—brews that are high in alcohol content and feature unusual ingredients. Retailers are enthusiastic about extreme beers because of their affluent demographic, healthy margins and added value in pulling customers into their stores.

While still just a tiny segment of the market, extreme beers are among the most coveted brands on retail shelves. They’re finding a place in the repertoire of many beer aficionados, while also attracting spirits and wine consumers. Craft brewers are responding with an onslaught of innovative expressions.

There’s no official definition for extreme beers, but generally they’re made with extravagant amounts of traditional or non-traditional ingredients. They often have an ABV of 15% or more (compared to 4% to 5% for mainstream domestic beers). The 2011 release of Sam Adams Utopias, for example, has an ABV of 27% while Dogfish Head Brewing’s 120 Minute IPA is between 15% and 20% ABV. The often-sought Sink the Bismarck! from Scotland’s BrewDog contains a whopping 41% ABV.

“Extreme beers are ground-breaking—they feature things that have never been tried before,” says Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co. In addition to Utopias, Koch points to some of Boston Beer’s small-batch labels like Griffin’s Bow and Vixen Chocolate Chili bock, as well as collaborative brew Infinium. “Extreme beers are an exercise in pure creativity—beers that push boundaries,” he adds.

Extreme beers often carry extreme prices—with some costing as much as high-end wines or spirits. Retailers also note that extreme beer consumers also are spirits and wine buyers too. Sam Calagione, founder of Melton, Delaware-based Dogfish Head Brewery, says merchants have found they can make the same dollar profit from a $13 four-pack of Palo Santo as from a full case of mainstream domestic beer. Koch remarks that Utopias resonates with consumers of single malt Scotch, vintage Port and Cognac.

Retailers are reporting little downside with extreme brews. “It’s the hottest department in the store,” says Ryan Chuttke, beer manager at Famous Liquors in Lombard, Illinois, adding that demand is so great that there’s little need for promotion. “My customers already know when a hot new label is going to arrive,” he explains. At Knightly Spirits, the five-unit chain in greater Orlando, Florida, beer buyer Alan Robey says the only drawback with extreme beers is he can’t meet demand because the products are so scarce. “Fortunately most of my customers understand that these are high-demand beers,” Robey adds.

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