There's a little bit of mad scientist hiding in most brewers. And at last week's Great American Beer Festival, several of them had the chance to let it out.
While most of the approximately 800 breweries at the festival had an IPA, stout or lager available for tasting, there were several offerings that veered sharply off the traditional path, resulting in beers that were anywhere from unusual to the downright bizarre.
In many cases, these are stunt beers that are brewed specifically to capture the attention of an overwhelmed audience. But by using that to lure in consumers, brewers also have a chance to showcase their flagship offerings and build a core following. And that core following is the first step in becoming an industry icon.
In fact, it was that sense of bold experimentation that led to the rise of Dogfish Head Brewing. Part of founder Sam Calagione's business plan was to openly flout the Reinheitsgebot, Germany's beer purity law, which limits the ingredients in beer to water, barley and hops. Today, Dogfish Head is the 16th-largest craft brewer in the country, according to The Brewers Association.
Ironically, when it comes to weird beers, Dogfish Head didn't come close to topping some of the other offerings from this year's festival. Here's a look at some of the most unusual ones.
General Washington's Secret Stash (Dude's Brews) While recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado, brewers haven't been able to use it in commercially available beer, since that industry is federally regulated. But this Aurora brewer has managed to not only combine the two, but in June it got federal approval to bottle and sell it in stores. Secret Stash is a cannabis-infused line of beers that use an extract from sativa stalk and stems. The THC is stripped from the marijuana, though, so imbibers won't get high.
Cerealiously (Black Bottle Brewery) The "breakfast beer" category is usually made up of beers with strong infusions of coffee, but this Fort Collins brewer steered things down a different path, infusing its milk stout with Count Chocula cereal. When it first debuted two years ago, employees bought every available box of the seasonal cereal from the Albertsons grocery store. Since then, General Mills has supplied the brewer with what it needs.
Other beers in the Cerealiously line have included Honey Bunches of Oats, Golden Grahams and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. (The brewer puts the cereal in a bag to prevent pieces from getting into the beer, in a procedure that's similar to dry hopping.)
Puff Puff Shiv (Prison City Brewing) Black Bottle wasn't the only brewery using cereal in beer this year. This brown ale from the acclaimed New York brewer is made with 50 boxes of Cocoa Puffs. If you were looking for a chocolate explosion, this was a good place to start.
Wari Chicha de Molle (Off Color Brewing) There were light beers, hazy beers and plenty of dark beers at the festival, but the purple haze of this Chicago brewery's offering was unique. Made with purple corn imported from Peru and spiced it with molle berries, it's based off of the archeological discovery of ancient Peruvian brewing customs. It tasted surprisingly tart and acidic.
Chaga Old Ale (Scratch Brewing) Mushroom beers aren't exactly unheard of in the beer world, but they're hardly commonplace. This Ava, Illinois brewer went all out for this brew, using the Chaga mushroom (which grows on birch trees) and boiling it down with birch sap to make a syrup that was added to the other ingredients. It then sat in Chambourcin wine barrels and was aged with brettanomyces to give it a tart, sour quality.
Certatio Equestris (Avery Brewing) Can't decide between a Mint Julep cocktail and a beer? You didn't have to this year. This sour ale was aged in bourbon barrels and then hit with a hefty dose of spearmint, which is the dominant flavor. It was a light tasting beer that many described as well balanced.
Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Ale (Aftershock Brewing Co.) There's plenty of chocolate in beer styles, but only Aftershock has managed to layer together the flavors of an oatmeal raisin cookie. It's a sweet, light tasting beer that actually makes you think you're drinking a cookie. Not a fan or oatmeal raisin? Try Aftershock's Peanut Alert, which tasted like liquid Nutter Butters.
Tropical IPA (Black Bottle Brewery and Remi Bonnart) An Indian Pale Ale was hardly unusual at the festival. You couldn't take three steps without finding a different IPA to sample. But this collaboration between Black Bottle and amateur brewer Remi Bonnart added coconut and mango to the craft beer industry's most popular style, standing out from the crowd.
White Downs Saison (Brasserie Saint James) Aged for 14 months in a barrel, this Saison featured both Butternut Squash and White Sage. The sage was dominant in an herbal and spicy beer.
—By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com
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