What’s Behind the Rise of Heavy Beers

Back in the days when mainstream lager owned the beer market, a persistent urban myth held that Canadian beer—if you could get it—wasn’t like ours. It was really strong. Turns out it wasn’t: their national brands were pretty much indistinguishable from ours, but the method of measuring alcohol content gave Canadian brands a higher number.

When Americans became aware that certain traditional European styles truly were appreciably stronger than our usual selections, it sparked curiosity. Those lucky enough to actually taste these beers learned about three things more important than their alcohol content: the beers were generally meant for special occasions, not daily quaffing; they could be quite expensive; and many were delicious. In other words, they were nothing like the fabled “strong” beers of Canada or the cheap malt liquors on our own shelves, the high-impact versions of pale lager. Rather, they were sophisticated beverages that delivered unusual flavors.

American craft brewers began playing with these unfamiliar styles: old ales and barley wines, Belgian dubbels and tripels, Baltic stouts. The strength was clearly part of their novelty, with some approaching double the alcohol content of standard 4.5% lagers. And the styles expanded American drinkers’ tastes.

But there was, it seems, a technical ceiling to the strength of beer. Smashing that ceiling became a challenge; doing so with panache, even more so. Today, beer in the range of 12-18% ABV, once impossible, is available (though still uncommon). And even more potent beers with alcohol levels that test credibility have launched a new war of the strongest. Why do brewers choose to put the extra time and expense into these beers, and who’s buying them?

A Short History of the World’s Strongest Beers

Brewing strong beer is a matter of the careful management of yeast. Under normal brewing conditions, the increasing concentration of alcohol in a beer creates a hostile environment where fermentation slows, then stops, and the yeast die. To exceed previous alcohol contents, brewers turned to new techniques.

The first was essentially backwards distillation, using low temperatures to freeze a portion of the water in the beer, leaving behind more alcohol. German eisbock was created in this way (accidentally, it is said) at the Reichel brewery in 1905, giving rise to a new style. 

A rival cross-town brewery, Erste Kulmbacher Union (EKU) was determined to go one better, without using the freezing technique. Following conventional fermentation, a second fermentation was launched through a manipulation of the yeast that the brewery kept secret. EKU 28, “das stärkste bier der Welt” (the strongest beer in the world) was released in 1953, with 11% alcohol and delicious flavor.

This set the terms, as it were, of the unofficial brewing arms race: beer had to be brewed without distillation techniques or the addition of distilled spirits, and it had to taste good.

In England, Thomas Hardy’s Ale, over 12%, appeared in the late sixties. This was followed by Samichlaus (14%) from Switzerland, a December special named for Santa Claus that required a year to ferment and mature.

In the 1990s, Jim Koch of Boston Beer launched a seven-year project to explore the boundaries of beer, producing Tripel Bock (17.5%, 1994). Upstart brewery Dogfish Head in Delaware briefly held the title with World Wide Stout (18.1%, 1999), before Boston Beer’s Millennium appeared (20%, 1999).

Koch, like most brewers of very-strong beer, didn’t discuss the specific technical breakthroughs. In general terms, however, the technique amounted to finding a series of increasingly alcohol-tolerant yeast strains to be used in succession, a process he likened to “climbing Everest.”

In an article in 2000, he explained “If you were helicoptered to Everest base camp, you’d be dead of pulmonary edema in 12 hours. But if you start at Kathmandu and walk up over the course of two weeks, you gradually get used to the change.”

Two years later, Boston Beer released Utopias, a barrel-aged, blended beer that in recent vintages weighs in near 30%. It is expensive, rare, and has defeated fine cognacs in blind competition.

Recently a new round of strongest-beer battles has broken out, but the competitors seem to have disregarded the unwritten rules that the beer be a) conventionally brewed and b) exceptional to drink. By the time Brewdog released the harsh-tasting, boozy End of History (55%), limited to 11 wildly expensive bottles that were encased in taxadermied squirrels wearing Highland garb, the competition had crossed over into farce.

Today’s Burly Brews

Very-strong beer, arbitrarily defined here as commercial beer over 10%, is part of the portfolio for a minority of breweries nationwide. Pioneers Boston Beer and Dogfish Head still produce the brands they mastered nearly two decades ago, but the techniques are no longer theirs alone. The Bruery, Avery, Stone, North Coast, Founders, Weyerbacher and others have regular offerings, although many stick fairly close to the 10% mark.

Most breweries that feature these very strong beers choose to do so for reasons of artistic expression, or to set themselves apart from the herd. When Jeremy Kosmicki, brewmaster at Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids, MI, joined the company in the late nineties, it was struggling to find a direction, with a portfolio of mid-range ales.

“They hired me and my partner, with our homebrewing past, and the kind of beers we liked to mess around with were those bigger-flavored, higher alcohol beers,” he recalls. “We made those for our tap room just as an experiment, but they really caught on. Our bosses had the bright idea, putting some of those in a package and sending them out to the world to see what happens.” 

Today, these bigger beers are a part of the portfolio, “part of who we are.” They are generally barrel-aged, and the emphasis is on the big flavors that higher alcohol can support.

Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado graduated from pretty strong beers to very strong beers with the release of The Beast (15%), in 2004. Under the supervision of “Barrel Herder” Andy Parker, the company now makes at least five beers a year in the 15-18% range. 

About why Avery devotes so much effort to these special beers, Parker says, “The main reason is simply that we are a company of adventurous brewers always trying to create something new. It’s very satisfying to watch people have a new flavor experience that stops them in their tracks because they’ve never had anything quite like it. Beer can be 1% ABV and hoppy, it can be 20% ABV and malty, it can have fruits and spices, it can have unicorn hooves and rhinoceros tears. It can be artistic.”

The very-strong beers can still pose technical challenges, Parker says. “Twelve percent is about where we max out our house yeast, without doing anything too terribly difficult. It requires a lot of extra oxygen, definitely more time in the tank and pitching a higher amount of yeast.” 

Many breweries rely, Everest-style, on the acclimatization of the yeast to rising alcohol content, coupled with a succession of yeast-tolerant strains, many borrowed from wine and champagne production.

Barrel-aging figures in a striking number of these very-strong beers for practical reasons. “When you make these high alcohol beers, after the fermentation process, which is three weeks to a month, those beers are still generally pretty hot with ethanol, that sharp alcohol flavor,” Kosmicki says. “Throwing them in the wood serves to soften that effect.”

Barrel-aging has other effects on the finished beer, beyond smoothing the rough edges. Residual alcohol in the barrel, left from the original spirit (or wine) can contribute traces of additional alcohol. Primarily, though, the original spirit can combine in interesting ways with the flavor of the base beer as it ages.  The favored styles and finishes are very much a matter of brewers’ individual tastes.

“Big imperial stouts are an obvious choice because the big malt presence can temper the ethanol a bit. But the obvious choice can also be an easy way out, so the brewers making these huge beers are always looking for something new,” Parker says. “A strong rum barrel-aged beer with pumpkin and spices? Sure. A 15% ABV bourbon barrel-aged stout with locally sourced coffee? Why not? Soon we’ll be trying a blonde 15% ABV beer and aging it in tequila barrels. We don’t know if it will work, but there’s only one way to find out.”

Who and What

Given their rarity, strength, extreme profiles and higher cost, very strong beers have a smaller consumer audience than lower alcohol, less challenging styles. Some of these beers enter the realm of “whales”—highly sought-after beers that inspire fans to camp outside breweries for the privilege of buying a limited number of bottles, which are then hoarded, traded and bragged about on-line.

But the appeal of very strong beers is not limited. As head of the barrel/strong beer program at Avery, Parker initially kept the bottling runs small, thinking that the 15+% beers were the exclusive realm of beer geeks. “But the beer world has evolved quite a bit and now we can easily send out three thousand cases of the best sellers. At this point I’d guess that only a small fraction of the people buying these extra strong beers are the hardcore beer geeks,” he says. “Now there’s a much larger portion of people who simply want something interesting that they haven’t had before. As that group of people has grown, so has the popularity of these beers. Exotic beers of all kinds have found their way into the mainstream.”

Kosmicki sees enthusiasts who are not die-hard geeks who buy the stronger beers for special occasions. He’s glad that Founders is releasing its stronger beers in 12-ounce four packs, as well as the 22-ounce or 750-ml format that has become the standard bottle for a “gourmet” beer. “This just seems to make a little more sense to me,” he says. “You can drink one now, give one to your friend, and cellar one. It’s not such a big commitment to crack one open.”

Jumping the Shark − Or the Squirrel

Somewhere above 20% alcohol, between Utopias (which holds its own against fine spirits of all kinds) and beers in rodent skins, very-strong beer crosses from art to gimmickry. Serious brewers agree that the line has to do with brewing for flavor versus brewing for strength, as well as quality.

Kosmicki faces a challenge brewing commemorative beers for Founders where strength has become part of the concept. “I did a 10% beer for our 10th year anniversary, and a 15% beer for our 15th. And it was difficult to get that 15 percenter up there. Now we are on 20 years this year and a lot of people want to know if I’ll make a 20% beer. I don’t know. Ultimately, it comes back to the quality. High alcohol for the sake of it – I have a hard time getting behind that.”

Parker also stresses the importance of intention and final result. 

“Is your goal to make the strongest beer in the world just so you can get more likes on Twitter and maybe a mention on a major news source? Then it’s likely a gimmick,” he says. “Is your goal to make a beer that stretches the boundaries of people’s perception a wee bit and introduces them to new flavors? Is it to make a beer that will pair well with food, just like a Madeira or dessert wine? While it can be easy to dismiss these beers as gimmicks, a majority of brewers making these high-alcohol beers are in it for the pursuit of beer.”

After 15 years of production, Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch still relishes the revolutionary nature of Utopias. “Utopias is the lunatic fringe of extreme beer—it’s unlike any naturally fermented beer ever brewed in the world and meant for anyone who’s interested in experiencing a beer they’ve never tasted before,” he says. “Utopias radicalizes the perception of what a beer can be and is just as experimental today as when we first created it in 2002.” bd

Julie Johnson was for many years the co-owner and editor of All About Beer Magazine. She has been writing about craft beer for over twenty years. She lives in North Carolina, where she was instrumental in the Pop the Cap campaign that modernized the state’s beer laws.

Legal Issues

Seventeen states place some kind of restriction on very-strong beer, in the form of alcohol caps or conditions on its sale, such as requiring an additional license or restricting the location of sales. Although this is clearly a concern for beer enthusiasts and professionals in those states, it rarely influences the decisions of breweries that choose to make these beers, in part because very-strong beers are generally brewed in smaller volumes.

Parker recalls that, for the first decade he worked at Avery, his parents in Ohio had to drive to Kentucky to buy the special beers he made. But these laws generally didn’t affect Avery’s barrel program. “Despite the random rules of each state, we’ve always pressed forward with the prime directive of making the beers that we want to make. If a few states have laws preventing their sale, so it goes,” he says. “They’ll find a home somewhere else. It might not be the objectively best business plan, but it’s worked for us.”

There are exceptions, however. Kosmicki remembers one instance, concerning Founders well-known Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS). “Ohio used to have a 12% cap, and they are neighbors and a pretty big market,” he says. “One year KBS clocked in at about 12.4 and we actually brewed a separate batch that came in at 11.9 just for Ohio. It was a lot of hassle to do it, but it was important to us. Maybe going forward we won’t have to face that again.”

Julie Johnson was for many years the co-owner and editor of All About Beer Magazine. She has been writing about craft beer for over twenty years. She lives in North Carolina, where she was instrumental in the Pop the Cap campaign that modernized the state’s beer laws. Read her recent piece: What is ‘Craft Beer’ Anymore?

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