Big Beer Made Here?

Hold your horses there, cowboy. I can see you’re all riled up about the fact that Ohio no longer has a cap on the ABV for beer, and you’re counting the days until the floodgates are opened and you can slake your thirst with bomber after bomber of 20 percent Super Triple Imperial Dragon IPA, but I need you to answer one question:

How many high gravity beers have you had?

I’m sorry, but it’s time to lay a little reality on you.

Those crazy high ABV beers you’ve heard stories about? Some of them don’t exist. At least not with the ABV you’ve heard, and the ones that do are really f*cking expensive. If you think your local brewer is going to figure out how to make them on the cheap you would be dead wrong.

“High gravity” means there’s a lot of stuff in that beer. It’s not like beer comes out of the fermenter at 50 percent ABV only to be diluted to the prescribed level for that style. The truth is that the old 12 percent ABV shackle wasn’t all that restrictive. Coaxing a beer much beyond that 12 percent ABV range is actually a lot harder than you might think.

Now rumor has it that in some places (not Ohio, of course, and most certainly not here in Columbus) use fuzzy math to keep a beer’s ABV under the legal threshold. We’re not talking about anything drastic, but sometimes you get a little better efficiency out of a recipe than you had been counting on and the ABV drifts into that 13-14 percent range.

Or did it? Let’s go back and crunch those numbers again. Are we sure we had an original gravity of 1.130? That can’t be right.

Again, it never happened in Ohio. Our brewers are all too good at math, and a brewer distributing to Ohio never once changed a label to reflect the legally accepted ABV level.

Was it hotter than 12 percent? Wow, must have conditioned in the bottle. Oops.

Mostly this “no cap” situation means that our brewers won’t have to be as meticulous about regulating the ABV when they brew bigger beers. You’ll probably see some familiar beers that used to come in at 12 percent ABV, weigh in a little heavier, but if you’re looking for somebody to break the bank, and drop an 18-20 percent bomb on us, you might be waiting a while.

“The business side of me wants to make one, but the beer loving side of me doesn’t,” Sideswipe’s Craig O’Herron divulged. “I’m not planning to make a big one because I’ve never had any I really liked, and I don’t necessarily think I could make one I would like. I like beer for its sessionable quality, and the big beers don’t have that. As for profitability, I think they will be very profitable up front because they will have a new cool factor which will help them move faster than they normally would, and the premium you could charge would more than make up for the time and ingredient cost.”

Valid point, but if you want to talk about beer in Columbus, you reach out to Angelo Signorino. He’s brewed more batches than most people can count, and he has dabbled in almost every style imaginable. He’s definitely interested in brewing an extra high gravity beer, but finding the capacity to do it is difficult with the brew schedule Barley’s needs to keep. That however, isn’t the only challenge.

“I’m still researching yeast options than can tolerate that alcohol rich environment,” Angelo commented. He also added some insight into bulking up that original gravity, “Some brewers will spend hours boiling wort to evaporate water and concentrate sugar. I’ve brewed beer entirely with malt extract syrup at other breweries and have no reservations about using it to increase the gravity of our wort.”

Adding extract or sugars can help address the issue of limited mash space, but it still costs money, and a bigger beer needs more time in the fermenter. A fermenter that might otherwise be turning out beers that the market is clamoring for. Lenny Kolada, at Smokehouse Brewing is keen on making a high-test beer. They’re in the early planning stages now, but if they decide to do it the beer will take 9 months to a year to develop. We’re talking something in the 18 percent ABV range that could retail for as much as $50 for a 750ml bottle.

“We would do it to express the ultimate art of brewing,” Lenny explained. “It’s a big pain in the ass, but it’s also bragging rights. “

I know, cowboy. Eighteen percent is nice, but what about those crazy beers? You’ve heard tell that some brewers are making beers that are over 40 percent ABV. Well, you heard right, and one of those brewers is opening a massive brewing operation in Canal Winchester. Brew Dog gleefully entered the fray to battle for the strongest beer in the world and held the top ranking for a spell with a 55 percent offering call “End of History.” Eleven bottles were made, they were inserted inside of stuffed animals, and sold for over $700 each. Brew Dog declared that to be its final effort, but since somebody recently surpassed the 55 percent mark, who knows?

Of course a few things need to be disclosed here. Rumors abound that brewers are cheating by adding grain alcohol to their batches. Even if that’s not true, these heavyweights are usually the product of freeze distillation, which is a process by which the beer is effectively frozen so ice crystals can be removed and a stronger, more concentrated product is left behind.

A lot of people find these ice beers to be quite awful. The mouthfeel is thick and sticky, and the taste can be cloyingly sweet. They are not for everybody, and not just because one bottle can consume your entire paycheck. Even if you’re flush with cash, you might find yourself with a 24 ounce bottle of something you want to pour over flapjacks.

To date, the highest known ABV in a naturally fermented, undistilled beer is the 30ish percent (the ABV varies with each release) achieved by Sam Adams’ Utopias. This beer generally retails around $200 for a 24 ounce cask, and takes at least two years to make. Some batches can contain blends of previously unreleased Utopias, so pinpointing dates can be hard. It’s released in limited quantities every two years or so. Generally speaking, it’s the high gravity beer by which all others are judged, and probably an indication of how a really thoughtful brewer will approach this new challenge.

That said, just sit back and enjoy the ride. Pretty soon store shelves will feature some of those heavy duty brews you’d beg your friends to buy when they were traveling out of state. You can develop a taste for these beers while our local brewers get a handle on this brave new world. Just keep your expectations realistic. We are not about to enter a new era of brewing. These high ABV beers have been around a while and they’re still mostly a novelty item, that’s not bound to change.