Not that long ago, Americans were swimming in an ocean of low ABV macro lager. There was a joke Europeans would tell regarding the similarities between American beer and sex in a canoe, and while I’ll let you discover the punchline on your own, (F-bomb warning) suffice it to say the comparison wasn’t flattering. Fast forward to current day, and American brewers are taking it to the other extreme by regularly churning out 7% IPAs and 10% imperial stouts, almost as a means of overcompensating for our long history of producing watery, homogeneous lager. Opinions vary on the necessity of such strength, but there’s no denying that the market for stronger beer is on the rise. And while many of the standard offerings of craft breweries may seem quite strong, there are a handful of boozy brews out there that can make even most barleywines seem sessionable. We’re talking about beer with ABV greater than wine, and in some cases even liquor. For our sake, we’ll call them extreme beers.
Fermenting beer at such incredible strengths presents challenges for a brewer as yeast struggle to survive in a highly alcoholic environment. The very byproduct that yeast creates when it eats the fermentable sugars contained in wort can eventually kill it off at a high enough concentration.Without the right strain of yeast, and without enough of an active culture, fermentation can easily stall, so it takes a technically savvy brewmaster to achieve successful results.
But enough about chemistry, let’s get back to talking about beer! For your imbibing pleasure, here are three high-octane selections that push the boundaries of beer making. Keeping with the theme of big beer as it pertains to American culture, I’ve only included selections from American breweries, although a quick glance at a list of the highest ABV beers in the world shows that our European counterparts are no strangers to extreme brewing. It is worthwhile to mention that while many of the insanely high ABVs you see on that list are achieved through a process called freeze distillation, the three beers I mention in this article all come by their remarkable strength through traditional brewing methods.
3. Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA
I couldn’t write a piece about extreme beers without mentioning one of the crown jewels in the Dogfish Head lineup: 120 Minute IPA. Founder Sam Calagione is well known in the craft beer community for his unconventional approach to brewing, so it’s no surprise to see not one, but (spoiler alert) two of his beers make this list. 120 minute IPA clocks in at around 18% ABV making it 3 times the strength of their 60 minute IPA. It’s boiled for a full 2 hours while continuously hopped, and then fermented and aged for 2 months before being bottled. Even at 120 IBUs, 120 Minute IPA is not nearly as bitter as some single IPAs since beers that start with as high a gravity as this one (45 degrees Plato or an OG of about 1.205) finish with a greater amount of unfermented sugars that give beer a bigger body and sweeter flavor, and it balances out the mind boggling amount of hops used in its production.
Unlike most IPAs, which are meant to be consumed fresh and young, DFH actually encourages its customers to cellar 120 Minute, as the insanely high alcohol content helps its rich, complex flavors evolve and mellow over time. The labels for bottles of 120 minute IPA even bear a note that reads “ages well.” As you might expect, 120 Minute IPA is not a year-round offering, and as it’s extremely popular and produced in small quantities, it can be somewhat tricky to find.
2. Dogfish Head World Wide Stout
Because having only one beer just south of the 20% mark clearly isn't enough for Sam Calagione, I present you with World Wide Stout, whose first batch actually pre-dates 120 Minute IPA by 4 years. The Dogfish Head website lists its strength at 15-20% ABV, although it varies from year to year. It has been as high as 23% (2002 vintage) and generally doesn't drop below 18%.
If there was such an idea as a “correct” style to use when brewing an extreme beer, stout would be an excellent starting point. Where an extreme version of a typically lighter style (like Kolsch or Pilsner) might be completely overwhelmed by the alcohol, leaving you with a hot, unpleasant palate, the intensely roasted malts used in brewing stout give it more of a proverbial backbone that helps mask the harsh burn that ethanol can produce.
World Wide Stout is a stellar example of an extreme beer. Despite an ABV that’s higher than even the biggest of California Cabs, it’s deceptively smooth and balanced. Users on both ratebeer and beeradvocate describe hints of chocolate, coffee, bourbon, rum, vanilla, molasses, anise and dried fruit.. Like 120 Minute IPA, World Wide Stout is produced in limited quantities once a year.
1. Sam Adams Utopias
Boston Beer Company is no stranger to the extreme beer game. In fact, they basically kicked it off in 1994 when they brewed their very first batch of Triple Bock, which had an ABV of about 18% and was the strongest commercial beer in the world at the time. Triple Bock was brewed three times in the 1990's and was followed up by Millennium, a specialty extreme beer (21% ABV) brewed for New Year’s Eve 1999. Utopias is the spiritual successor to Millennium and Triple Bock, and has been brewed annually since 2002.
From the mouth of founder Jim Koch himself, the purpose of Utopias was “to stretch the boundaries of beer.” Although it’s brewed with traditional ingredients, if presented with Utopias without prior knowledge of just what it was, one could not be faulted for assuming it was liqueur or cordial. Unlike its bubbly brethren, Utopias is non-carbonated and intended to be consumed at room temperature in a snifter or dessert wine glass, more like sherry or port than beer. At 28% ABV (2013 vintage) it is currently the strongest commercial beer brewed in the United States. And as was mentioned earlier, it attains its mammoth ABV without the use of freeze distillation, so it is also the strongest naturally fermented beverage in the world, and therefore the pinnacle of extreme beer brewing. Released once a year in very small batches (fewer than 15,000 bottles for the 2013 release) and retailing at about $200/bottle, tasting a sample can be both difficult and costly. Those fortunate enough to nab a bottle (or at least a sip) are treated to an experience unlike what any other craft beer has to offer. Each year’s release is its own unique entity, crafted in a manner not unlike fine wine or whiskey with brewers blending previous vintages of Utopias together, and aging it in a variety of oak barrels.
Although these are just a few examples of extreme beer currently on the market, the list of extreme imperial ales and lagers continues to grow as brewers discover new and innovative methods to carry on this ancient tradition. Whether you’re the type of beer drinker who reaches for a light adjunct lager, or one who prefers to sip imperial stout, the skill and creativity that goes into producing beers at 4-5 times the strength of your average commercial beer must be respected.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.