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Infinium is the first of three beers resulting from a two-year collaboration between Boston Beer Company, the makers of Samuel Adams,and Weihenstephan Brewery in Germany. Jim Koch, brewer and founder of Boston Beer Company, was approached by Weihenstephan managing director Josef Schradler to develop beers that push the limits of Germany’s conservative brewing culture.

Weihenstephan, which is located in the Bavarian city of Freising, was founded by monks in 1040. Whether the brewery is the oldest in the world or not, a claim disputed by nearby Weltenburg Abbey and Czech Republic’s Zatec Brewery, there is no question about Weihenstephan’s commitment to tradition. Schradler and his team proudly observe the Reinheitsgebot, a German purity law that required all beers be made with only water, barley, hops, and yeast. Although the 1516 law was primarily concerned with regulating the price of beer and supply of grain and was overturned in 1987, the majority of German brewers continue to use traditional ingredients and methods today. As a result, almost all German beer is made without adjuncts like rye and oats or flavorings like herbs, spices, and fruit.

This collaboration between Samuel Adams and Weihenstephan is a strong sign that Germany’s beer culture is headed for change as German brewers begin to explore different interpretations of the Reinheitsgebot and more decide to go beyond it. In a promotional video Samuel Adams’ Koch describes the partnership:

They [the Weihenstephan collaborators] had an answer to any question that you could ask about beer. And we could think about things beyond anything they’d ever imagined. That’s what we brought to the table.

The outcome is Infinium, a 10.3%-ABV “champagne-like” beer marketed as the first new beer style to be developed under the restrictions of the Reinheitsgebot in over a century. Koch describes the beer in a post on Boston.com:

The flavor idiom would be sort of in between a champagne, a dessert wine, and maybe a Sam Adams Noble Pils. You get some of the body and mouthfeel of a beer, some of the hop character of a beer, but it’s very dry and acidic without being thin. And then it has some of the fruitiness — pear, apple, peach, apricot notes — of a dessert wine.

I tried Infinium this week at a launch event at D.C.’s Meridian Pint. The deep gold-colored, healthy-headed beer is well carbonated and malty without being cloyingly sweet or overly dry. With a nice alcohol presence but very drinkable, Infinium could easily be called a beer-like champagne rather than a champagne-like beer (methods and geography aside, of course).

I had been curious about Infinium after following the news about a special, to-be-patented brewing process that took the team a good portion of two years to develop. But I was also wary of possible spin. Samuel Adams does not claim their beer is uniquely “triple hopped” like the makers of Miller Lite do, but a brewery so successful its status as “craft” is contested because of the amount of beer it has grown to produce is no stranger to marketing ploys. For example, their Cranberry “Lambic” is not fermented spontaneously through exposure to wild airborne yeasts as true lambics are. It’s merely flavored with cranberries. The brewery decided to call it a lambic probably so drinkers would associate it with the popular Belgian style of beer.

The special method that brewers from Samuel Adams and Weihenstephan devised to achieve the flavor, alcohol content, and carbonation they wanted within the confines of water, barley, hops and yeast involves adding different yeasts to a custom malt commissioned from Quebec, extending part of the early stages of beer-making throughout the entire brewing process. Samuel Adams brewer Bert Boyce says in an interview on Los Angeles Examiner.com:

Normally we have all these sugars and enzymes to work with, but being able to use only the four specific ingredients took us all the way back to the drawing board. It forced us to do it in a different way.

Boston Beer’s vice president of brewing David Grinnell describes that “different way” in a video on the Infinium website:

Our breakthrough moment came when we realized we could take some of those processes which naturally occur in the mashing part of brewing, which is the first day of brewing. We kept hitting this wall. We could only go so far with it. And we realized that we could take that, and actually introduce it again as we fill the kettle and again as we ferment it. In a way it was a sort of tag team process of the yeast digesting the sugars and making alcohol and flavor while the enzymes that came from the special malt we used continued to make more food for the yeast.

We age Infinium in the bottle for several weeks, a very traditinoal method. And in that process using a separate yeast, we create a lot more flavor and we create a lot of the carbonation. This is a process which is uncommon to beer but familiar to people who understand the champagne process.

Bottle conditioning with additional yeast is common in the beer world. Employing the Méthode Champenoise which involves riddling and disgorging the bottles of beer to remove dead yeast is not unheard of but rare, as brewers of Belgian brut beers demonstrate. In fact, the Bosteels and Landtsheer breweries in Belgium are so serious about the method that they send bottles of their Deus and Malheur Brut beers to France to undergo the special process.

Skeptics may say this “innovation” in method simply amounts to finding natural ingredients and a sequence for using them to achieve the bionic feats that today’s brewers can get with the help of ingredients like lab-derived sugars and enzymes. What is significant, however, as Greg Kitsock suggests in a recent article at WashingtonPost.com, is that this way of working within the traditions of German brewing opens up an entire world of possibilities for that already rich brewing culture. The collaboration, which follows a similar one between Brooklyn Brewery and Schneider & Son, could easily be the beginning of a revolution as German brewers look to American innovation for help breaking from centuries-old tradition to push the boundaries of what German beer can be.

If you are interested in trying Infinium, it is being released and strategically marketed to replace champagne as your bubbly this New Year’s Eve. It shouldn’t be hard to find; 15,000 cases are slated to hit the North American market. At a suggested retail price of $19.99 for each 750 mL bottle, Infinium is definitely a less expensive alternative to champagne. Happy New Year!

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