There are, as one might expect, unusual comestibles on offer at the annual Thorrablot winter food festival in Iceland, a pagan-revivalist affair taking place this month. Examples: seal flippers, boiled lamb's head and pickled rams' testicles. Another, more modern item created specifically for this year's fest almost failed to make the cut. It's a beer – made with dead whale.
The Stedji brewery teamed up with whaling company Hvalur to source ground-up bone meal from fin whales, a byproduct of the oil-extraction process. Conservationists protested, decrying the majestic creature's use in what was deemed a novelty drink. Public-health officials launched a ban, citing Hvalur's lack of permit to use the meal in food. But the agriculture and fisheries ministry overturned the ban late last month, to local beer lovers' apparent glee. Three batches sold out "immediately," brewery-owner Dagbjartur Arilíusson told me. It has a "very malty, smoked caramel taste, and in the undertone and aftertaste you can taste the whale meal."
The Melville-worthy beer is an especially controversial example of craft brewing's most dynamic trend: shock-value ingredients. The list includes three things you probably wouldn't want to try, and a couple you might: bulls' testicles, elephant excrement, hair-follicle deposits, bacon-maple doughnuts and moon dust. Call it extreme brewing with an exclamation mark. Or, depending on your disposition, extreme brewing with a question mark. As in "Why?"
"It's been fun to see the responses from the general public," says Brett Joyce, president of Oregon-based Rogue Ales and Spirits, which recently topped my list in the strange-brew sweepstakes. His aptly named Beard Beer, released last year, was made using yeast cultured from brewmaster John Maier's facial hair.
"It makes a wonderful beer," Joyce said. And why not? Yeasts, magical micro-organisms that convert sugar to alcohol, are omnipresent in nature – on surfaces and in the air. Maier had brewed thousands of beer batches over a quarter-century with Rogue. His 1978-vintage, pre-hipster-chic cheek bush had, ipso facto, flourished into a wondrous petri dish of invisible diversity, a veritable Toronto or Vancouver of microbial multiculturalism. With a farm-to-mug business model based on such ingredients as local barley and hops, Joyce was keen to try a hand at homegrown yeast. (Yeasts obtained from Rogue's hopyard failed to propagate in the lab.)
"People thought it was a joke because we launched it on April Fool's," Joyce said of the beer. "But there's really nothing to be grossed-out about." Several critics on the popular RateBeer.com blog agree. "Fruity banana aroma with hints of spicy citrus," wrote one. "Light fruity notes up front with bready malts following with a spicy, yeasty finish."
Rogue's other new novelties include Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale, a libation infused with cured pork belly and maple syrup, inspired by a signature dessert at Voodoo Doughnut, a cult shop in Portland, Ore.
Other breweries reportedly have been venturing deeper into Fear Factor territory. Sankt Gallen in Japan made a beer using Thai coffee beans that had been excreted by elephants. A Danish brewer did the same with beans pooped by Southeast Asian civet cats. Wynkoop Brewing of Denver made Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout with roasted bulls' testicles. (Don't ask me what it tastes like, I'm not thirsty.)
And bringing new meaning to far-out fermentation, Dogfish Head of Delaware last fall created an ale with lunar meteorite dust obtained from ILC Dover, a nearby company that manufactures spacesuits for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Says the Dogfish website: "These certified moon jewels are made up primarily of minerals and salts, helping the yeast-induced fermentation process and lending this traditional German-style a subtle but complex earthiness." More like complex space-y-ness.
Say what they will about flavour subtleties, producers can't deny the trend has much to do with marketing. The world is always thirsty for a good story.
"Part of that stuff is novelty value," says Randy Mosher, author of Radical Brewing. A partner in a Chicago microbrewery called 5 Rabbit, inspired by Latin American traditions, he is contemplating a brew to be made with grasshoppers. So far he's been unable to find a source for good-quality fresh insects. "We wouldn't mind the shock value if it tastes good."
In Canada, Rob Engman, publisher of Taps magazine, cites a list of oddball but arguably more tame ingredients used by brewers. They include cayenne peppers, spruce tips, dandelion, carrot, marshmallows, hemp and hibiscus. "Spruce is big right now," he says, citing Garrison Brewing of Halifax's excellent revival of the pine-scented, pioneer-days style that used spruce and fir tips. Last year Barley Days Brewery of Picton, Ont., teamed up with Toronto restaurant The Ceili Cottage to make a batch of Scrimshaw Oyster Stout using 1,000 Prince Edward Island oysters, though that brew, too, harkens back to a style of the past.
If a beer ingredient could be simultaneously wacky and sensible, I'd nominate Mamma Mia! Pizza Beer. It's made with classic pizza toppings, such as oregano, basil, tomatoes and garlic, plus an entire pizza – minus cheese – thrown in "for good luck," says Tom Seefurth, a Chicago-area former home-brewer who commercialized the product eight years ago.
"You go, 'Wow, it tastes like I had a piece of pizza followed by a splash of beer,'" he says. "Who doesn't like the way pizza and beer taste together?"
Sure beats bull-testicle stout.