Battle of the ABV

I often write about big beer. The expression usually refers to the type of megalithic brewer that produces the lion’s share of all the beer consumed around the world. But this week, “big” beer means high-alcohol beer. And I mean really high, like more than 20 percent alcohol by volume. Like beer so strong a pint will put you down for several days.

The alcohol content of most beer ranges from around three percent, for some sours and lambics, to approximately 16 percent, for a particularly hearty stout. What you don’t see too often is a beer that breaks the 20 percent barrier. There’s good reason for that. It ain’t easy to make a beer with that much punch. It requires several rather labor-intensive brewing methods and, above all, a yeast that can survive in a high-alcohol environment.

Coming in at the low-end of the big beer spectrum is Samuel Adams Utopias. At just 28 percent, Utopias is frankly a lightweight compared to some of the other big beers out there, but it’s worth mentioning. Here’s a beer that boasts an eyebrow-raising ABV and an extraordinary flavor profile reminiscent of a fine sherry. The brew is created by blending several other beers—some that have been aging in barrels for more than 24 years—with multiple strains of yeast, three types of hops and several different malts. The result is a smooth, boozy, non-carbonated beer that deserves to be sipped from a snifter on a cold night, in front of a roaring fire.

Don’t run off to the local liquor store to look for Utopias, though. This limited-edition beer is released only every other year (look for it in 2019), and they only produce only about 17,000 bottles. Oh, and each bottle costs a cool $200.

The mad men over at Scotland’s BrewDog got into the high-alcohol beer game with their oddly named Tactical Nuclear Penguin. This bombastic imperial stout boasts 32 percent alcohol by volume and is said to be both bitter and tart. The brew is aged in whiskey barrels for more than a year to enhance the flavor.

Not to be outdone, De Struise brought out the Black Damnation series and, by borrowing German Eisbock techniques, the Belgian brewery managed to kick the ABV up to 39 percent. (For reference, most spirits are 40-percent ABV.) Eisbock is created by freezing a beer’s natural water content and skimming the ice away, leaving more alcohol.

BrewDog went back to the drawing board and produced another super-strong beverage, this time an imperial IPA called Sink the Bismarck! This brew upped the alcohol ante to an astounding 41 percent. It’s a bitter bomb that packs more wallop than most vodkas (although it does not mix well with vermouth).

The brewery that tops the charts with the booziest beer, however, is Scotland’s Brewmeister. And it has not one, but two insanely alcoholic beers: Armageddon (65 percent) and Snake Bite (67.5 percent). These two brews are on the same level of strength as Absinthe, which is said to induce hallucinations. The brewers maintain that their product should be savored like a fine scotch or whiskey. These beers, they say, have great complexity beyond their mind-numbing booziness.

In the world of big beer, there are some real heavyweights. If you do get your hands on one of these amazing brews, remember: sip, don’t gulp.