Since the first humans accidentally figured out that fermented grains and fruits produced an intoxicating effect, we’ve been constantly seeking new and unique ways to brew. The magic byproduct of fermentation, the alcohol, has been a central part of brewing culture for centuries. The taste of alcohol can drastically change the taste of a beer, and playing with the alcohol content through refermentation, aging or other processes is part of the brewing game.
The diversity craft beer market has increased dramatically in the past five years, and along with it have emerged a few “extreme” brewers that have pushed the envelope to try and make their beers have the highest alcohol content. The two best known examples are from two very different breweries – Dogfish Head Brewery of Milton, DE and Samuel Adams Brewing Co. of Boston, MA.
Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA: This IPA is
dry-hopped* continuously hopped for the whole 120 minute boil, and is well-known for its high alcohol content as well. I think it tastes more like cognac than beer, and is quite unforgettable.
Sam Adams Utopias: I have not been lucky enough to taste this, but the brewers at Sam Adams actually bred a special yeast, which they nicknamed “Ninja Yeast” due to its ability to survive high alcohol. The total ABV on this beer can be up to 27% ABV. The reason they are able to get the beer up that high is due to the yeast only, it is able to keep fermenting along and pumping out alcohol.
But what seems to blow them all away is a newcomer to the “extreme” beer brewing. BrewDog brewing company of the United Kingdom just announced a beer that is 32% ABV – Tactical Nuclear Penguin. This beer is highly controversial, not only because of its extreme alcohol content (there are a lot of temperance-like groups that are very mad about the very idea of this beer), but because of its methods. The tactical nuclear penguin is, for lack of a better word, freeze-distilled. Any beer brewed is still, at its core, mostly water. So when a beer freezes, what does not freeze is the alcohol. The BrewDog brewers decided to freeze the beer and draw off the remaining liquid several times – until the resulting beer was up to the crazy strength that it is now.
The question then remains : is this beer? Does distilling beer makes it into… something else? Does it matter if it is beer or not? Some would argue that it could be just an artistic expression of brewing, of the spirit of experimentation and anti-establishment attitude. People are up in arms about this being as strong as whiskey – but no one objects to whisky being as strong as whisky, so does is matter what we call this creation? I leave this to you, Hop Press and Rate Beer readers.
For me, the verdict is still out. I enjoy craft beer for a lot of reasons, and low on my list is how drunk it gets me in the shortest period of time. I don’t drink the extreme beers for their intoxicating capacity, I drink them to taste what the brewer has crafted. And as long as brewers are willing to experiment with new** and different methods, ingredients and angles, I’m willing to taste their creations.
*Thanks to a few of my readers, I’ve made a correction. I incorrectly reported that DFH’s 120 Minute IPA was dry-hopped- which means that hops were added dry after the brewing process – for 120 minutes. This is actually incorrect, the 120 minute is actually “continuously hopped” which means that hops are added throughout the entire duration of the boil.
**This technique is not new, either. It has been used to make a German style of beer known as an Eisbock for years – though perhaps not to this extreme magnitude.