The Brews That Break Through Barriers
Biggest. Brightest. Loudest. Strongest.
In nature and in life, flamboyance commands attention. Any animal species with the power to discriminate distinguishes between those of its kind with more and those with less of that certain something–feathers, muscles, songs, colors, teeth–and the Mores usually win.
We may express admiration for subtlety, but when did you last get really excited about the smallest, the slowest, or the most delicate? No, be honest: it’s the loudest fanfare, the tallest plume, highest leap, the hottest pepper that really grabs your senses and makes you gasp. That is where the tension is, because the triumph is fleeting: the fastest runner is only the fastest that’s ever been, not the fastest that can ever be. Records are made to be toppled.
The strongest beer. When it comes to alcohol, the fascination with just how strong a beer can possibly get runs slap up against the party line on alcohol restraint. We are not meant to rave about strong drink just because it’s strong: hence the beer reviewer’s fondness for euphemisms like “very warming” (translation: “gawd, that’s strong”).
The search for the most intoxicating beer seems to go to the heart of all our contradictions about alcohol. But the truth is, the quest for the strongest beer isn’t really about getting you drunk, any more than the world weightlifting championships are about moving big pieces of metal from one place to another, or the grand slalom is about the quickest way down a hill. Alcohol content, weight, speed: they are all proxy measures of the skill and discipline of the practitioner.
Jim Koch, whose Boston Brewing Co. created Millennium, the current record-holding beer, said, “It’s not just about maximizing alcohol. If it were, you’d be drinking Everclear.”
Like an Olympic event, the contest for strongest beer has rules. Unlike the Olympics, the participants don’t necessarily subscribe to the same set of rules. Must the beer be made only from malted barley? Adherents to the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian Beer Purity Law of 1516, regard brewers who stray from the all-barley path the way a purist body builder regards steroid junkies. To them, these are unfair “performance enhancers” that show nothing of the brewer’s craft.
Dan Shelton, who imports the German beer EKU 28, says of German tastes, “Simply put, a top-fermented beer using non-malted fermentables is not beer to a German. . That is exactly what the German export agent told me. When I mentioned that there were other beers out there from Belgium, Holland and France now claiming to have higher alcohol content than the 28, he said, “Ja, but that isn’t beer for us.’”
What about yeast? Does the yeast that creates the world’s strongest beer have to be, traditionally, a beer yeast? Top fermenting? Bottom fermenting? What about wine yeast? Champagne yeast? Funky stuff out of the yeast archives? It may ferment beautifully, but is the result beer?
Making the world’s strongest beer is not about making the world’s finest beer–very strong alcohol may indeed preclude greatness. And yet, all the beers that have been called “the world’s strongest” have also been admired as awfully good beers. Michael Jackson pokes gentle fun at the scramble for supremacy, but acknowledges the quality: “While this contest [for strength] is too hard to resist, such muscle has limited application. These are beers of excellent quality but they would best be dispensed from small barrels suspended from the necks of mountain-rescue dogs.”
That may, in fact, be another unwritten rule of the Strongest competition: it’s got to be good to drink. As Grant Wood, production manager at Boston Beer Co. and leader of the team that created Millennium, put it, “The big fear on my part was that, yes, we would break the world record, but we would have produced something that tasted vile, sort of a cross between an IPA and airplane glue.”
So, the strongest beer in the world must be measurably strong. It must be brewed according to rules. And it has to taste pretty damned good.
A handful of beers–six or seven–have had a legitimate claim to call themselves “the world’s strongest beer” in the past half century. Check the books today, and you’ll find one beer singled out. But each title holder was in its time stronger than any beer that came before. So it seems only fair to honor them in chronological order, like the kings of England, or the begats of the Old Testament. After all, this is brewing on an epic scale.
The Nature of the Challenge
Brewing strong beer all comes down to the care and feeding of yeast. These single-celled organisms consume sugar for fuel, and produce new yeast, plus carbon dioxide and alcohol–that’s fermentation. From the point of view of the yeast, producing more yeast is what’s going on; the carbon dioxide and alcohol are waste products. From the point of view of the brewer, though, the waste products are the purpose of the whole exercise.
The challenge for the brewer, then, is to keep the yeast operating in greater and greater concentrations of alcohol, what brewers variously called “a hostile alcohol environment,” or “a hideously poisonous atmosphere.” To the yeast, it must be like living in Los Angeles during a temperature inversion, choking on your own pollution.
As the alcohol concentration rises, fermentation slows, then stops. The yeast can’t take anything in, and they can’t excrete. They use up their internal stores of energy, then die.
How can a brewer keep the yeast ticking over for as long as possible? All the strong beers have taken broadly similar routes.
First, the brewer chooses a yeast strain (or more than one) that is relatively alcohol tolerant. For some breweries, this has meant searching outside traditional beer yeast strains and borrowing from vintners and distillers. It can also mean pilot efforts in micro-evolution, selecting and breeding the hardiest yeast cells over several generations.
Then, the ideal diet. The wort–the sweet broth that sustains the yeast–needs to be packed with nutrients. Original gravity (OG) is the measurement of the concentration of dissolved material in the wort. Brewers from the German tradition follow the letter of the Reinheitsgebot, which stipulates that only barley can be used as the basis of the wort. Brewers from other traditions boost the starting potency of the wort–the original gravity–with other grains or sugars.
Finally, time and temperature. To ferment this super-strong wort until as much of the sugar as possible is turned into alcohol can take months, and tends to work better at low temperatures.
First of the Strong
Erste Kulmbacher Union Brewery–EKU–in Kulmbach, Germany, trumped a local competitor when they created EKU 28, the first beer promoted as the strongest beer in the world or, rather, “das stärkste bier der Welt.”
Since the beginning of the last century, Kulmbach has had four commercial breweries, including EKU and the rival Reichel brewery. According to importer Dan Shelton, “The town just isn’t very big. With such a small immediate market, the great breweries of Kulmbach were surely locked in fierce competition for ages.”
Hermann Nothhaft, braumeister at the Kulmbach Brewery, explains how EKU 28 was born of cross-town rivalry. In 1905, the Reichel brewery brought out the original eisbock, a traditional bock beer made stronger by freezing the water and removing ice to concentrate the alcohol.
Eisbock’s creation was, it seems, an accident: “One keg of beer didn’t get into the lagering space,” said Nothhaft, “and it was left outside in the cold. After some days it was found and broken open. What they found was a big chunk of ice, but with a cavity of black liquid at the center.” The black liquid was a presumably very alcoholic beer. This “lucky mistake” was the birth of a new style, and Reichelbru Eisbock, at 10 percent alcohol by volume (abv), was probably the strongest beer to date.
The braumeister at the EKU brewery was clearly nettled. “He saw that Reichelbräu brewed a strong beer [the Eisbock], and he decided that he would also make strong beer.” But this strong beer “must be much stronger than the beer of the other brewery.”
He was not in a hurry. Nearly four decades later, in 1953, Erste Kulmbacher Union released EKU 28. The “28” indicated a guaranteed minimum original gravity of 28 degrees, and the finished beer measured around 11 percent alcohol.
Nothhaft explained, “We use our regular beer yeast, but the fermentation is not quite normal. When the alcohol is over 8 percent, fermentation is not very good. We use a second fermentation, but we don’t like to tell the second part of the fermentation–it is a secret technique. Then we cool it to between -1 and -0.5 degrees C for nine months. The chilling is very important for taste, clarity and filtration, but this is not an eisbock.”
The rivalry between the Kulmbach breweries receded in later years. In fact, one of the brewers at the creation of EKU 28, Bernhardt Schumann, now in his nineties, became braumeister at Reichel brewery. Reichel purchased the bankrupt EKU brewery in the 1990s then, oddly, dropped production of Reichelbräu Eisbock and kept EKU 28.
The Poet’s Ale
The next title holder was not brewed to break a world strength record but to honor a poet’s death. And it was not a 20th-century technical triumph. Rather, it relied on recipes dating back over 150 years.
Thomas Hardy’s Ale, produced in vintage-dated batches each year, is probably best known for its ability to age gracefully, improving over the years. But from 1968 to 1980, England’s strongest ale was probably also the world’s strongest beer, at just over 12 percent abv.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the author’s death, the Thomas Hardy Society in England approached the Eldridge Pope brewery in Dorchester, where Hardy lived, to brew a one-time commemorative beer.
“Hardy and Alfred Pope, owner of the Eldridge Pope brewery, were friends,” said George Saxon, who imported the ale into the United States for years. “They had tea together–and no doubt a beer or two!”
In the novel The Trumpet Major, Hardy wrote warmly of the forgotten beers of his native Dorset. So when the society wanted a beer that was faithful to Hardy’s oft quoted description of an ale “luminous as an autumn sunset,” the brewery consulted their own old-fashioned brewing books to create a memorable barley wine.
The one-off bottling sold out, and production continued each year in January for release in late summer. Then, in June this year, Saxon released the sad news that there will be no Thomas Hardy Ale in 2000. Eldridge Pope wants out of the brewing business to concentrate on its pubs and has essentially leased the brewery to Peter Ward, formerly of Courage brewery. Ward initially planned to produce short-run beers, which could have allowed for annual production of Thomas Hardy Ale. Now, however, that is unlikely.
The only chance for a Thomas Hardy Ale for 2001 will be if another brewery can be found in the next few months to brew it under license.
Ho Ho Ho
Different reports leave some doubt about the respective ranks of EKU 28 and Thomas Hardy through the 1970s. But in 1980, the Swiss brewer, Hürlimann, blew the competition away with a 14 percent beer designed for strength, Samichlaus (Santa Claus). A strong beer for the holidays, Samichlaus was brewed each year on December 6, St. Nicolas Day, and released one year later.
“They had their eye on EKU 28 all along,” said George Saxon, who imported Samichlaus as well as the Thomas Hardy Ale.
How did Hürlimann do it? Its labs were famous for yeast experimentation. “Hürlimann is known worldwide for developing strains of yeast,” said Saxon. “They had chemists working all the time, just on yeast.”
Samichlaus was clearly the strongest beer and, since it conformed to the Reinheitsgebot, it was a challenge to EKU. “EKU insisted that, even though Samichlaus was the strongest beer in alcoholic strength, EKU 28 was still the strongest based on original gravity. “Hürlimann said, ‘We’ll take care of that’. They raised the original gravity of Samichlaus and took both titles,” Saxon laughs.
In 1997, Hürlimann was acquired by the Swiss giant, Feldschlössen, and it was announced that no beer would be brewed on December 6 for the 1998 vintage. “We still don’t understand that decision,” said Saxon. Feldschlössen execs cited the lack of demand in European markets, ignoring the larger following the beer had achieved in America.
The Record-breaking Nineties
Samichlaus could rest on its laurels for more than a decade. Then, in the early 1990s, Jim Koch of Boston Beer launched a strong beer project that produced two world records, interrupted by one–possibly two–bold beers from unexpected sources.
Boston Beer’s effort is really a seven-year exploration of what Koch called “the lunatic fringe of brewing,” which led first to Triple Bock in 1994, followed by Millennium in 1999.
Koch captures the inspiration: “It was really just like Columbus wondering what was over the horizon. Here’s a place beer’s never been–what’s it like there? We would be fermenting grain to levels never achieved before, which meant we’d be tasting flavors that in 6,000 year of brewing had never been tasted.
“At Boston Beer Company, we’ve been very successful, we have a responsibility to do what no one else has done. We have the technical skills, and the lunacy to do it, and the time to try again and again.”
The investment paid off. Triple Bock, brewed using unusual fermentables such as maple syrup, and fermented with champagne yeast, broke all the rules–and the records, with an abv of 17.5 percent. Though neither a tripel nor a bock, this dark, totally noncarbonated beer varies with each vintage-dated year and–like other strong beers that are bottle conditioned–can be cellared for years.
In 1997, as the third vintage of Triple Bock became available, a dark horse entered the strong beer competition–or rather, a dark prince. Belzebuth, a French beer in the style of a Belgian golden ale, is brewed by Brasserie Jeanne d’Arc near Lille, close to the Belgian border. At 15 percent abv, Belzebuth had already been surpassed in strength by Triple Bock.
But the claim pur malt on the label would put an all-malt beer of this strength in a category all its own. Other brewers have expressed skepticism, but the statements from Brasserie Jeanne D’Arc describe a remarkable achievement. “Belzebuth is a pure malt beer, without any sugar or alcohol addition and only barley malts are used (pale malt, Vienna aromatic malt and ambered special malt, all coming from France). The Belzebuth yeast is beer yeast especially finalized by the brewery and a private laboratory in Brussels in order to provide the strength that characterizes Belzebuth. We don’t freeze the beer. The strength of Belzebuth is provided only by the natural fermentation of the beer.”
Like so many of the hyper-strong beers, Belzebuth, which is enjoyed as an aperitif in France, seems to confuse beer-drinking audiences. Rather than see the beer go the way of Thomas Hardy and Samichlaus, the brewery is considering formulating a weaker version, still formidable at 8 or 10 percent.
Pushing the Envelope
As the end of the second millenium loomed, two very different breweries followed a similar impulse, each initially unaware of the other’s efforts.
Boston Beer took the team approach that had already been successful, determined to learn lessons from Triple Bock, and set its sights on Millennium, under the leadership of production manager Grant Wood. Like Triple Bock, it would be a completely still beer, but, says Wood, “Triple Bock had a lot of body: syrupy, sweet, very complex and intense. I wanted to increase alcohol and at the same time improve flavor and drinkability.”
After a lot of pilot efforts, the beer ended up with an all-grain mash (in contrast to Triple Bock’s malt extract) of 2-row Harrington, Caramel 60 and 120 and Vienna; blends of honey, maple syrup, and cane sugar; the full range of noble hops–Spalt, Saaz, Tettnang, Hallertau Mittelfrüh; and two different yeasts.
Talking to Wood and Koch about the selection and care of yeast sounds like an assault on Everest, an analogy Koch uses.
“We conducted trials on seven strains of yeast,” said Wood. “Some that are not considered beer yeasts. Then there was a distiller’s yeast, a champagne yeast, and an unusual one–maybe it had been used for palm wine. Two stood out. One fermented very quickly, and it had a fairly high alcohol tolerance. Another fermented more slowly, and it had the alcohol tolerance I needed. I settled on a tag team approach, using the first yeast to get up the hill as quickly as it could and accomplish 90 to 95 percent of the fermentation. Then the other little guy would carry us the rest of the way. We pitched both strains [added them to the wort] together at the beginning, even though the little guy wasn’t really needed until the end. You can’t just pitch yeast directly into that super toxic environment–they’d croak.”
Koch echoes the theme: “It’s like climbing Everest. 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.”
Wood considered a variety of techniques to give the yeast the boost they needed without using a lot of additives. “There is a key piece of the fermentation process that I don’t want to give away.”
“It was a real nail biter there, checking each day to see how the yeast were doing.”
Around the same time, in Delaware, Dogfish Head Brewery’s Sam Calagione also assembled a team to brainstorm its way to the world’s strongest beer.
“Dogfish Head has always leaned towards the eccentric,” said Calagione. “I figured, why do what’s already been done? Going after the biggest beer, some of the motivation is ego. But it also made us better brewers.
“It can be amazing drinking other big beers: they can be provocative, Scotch-like, liqueur-like, but not like beer. We wanted this to taste like beer, which is why we chose a stout. We had a template in the strong Imperial stouts and Slavic porters.”
Five brewers worked together on what would become World Wide Stout, meeting weekly to check on progress. “The project is all about keeping the yeast going. That’s what wakes you up at night,” said Calagione.
“There are certain techniques I won’t talk about.” Calagione was amused to learn that brewers at EKU and Boston Beer had said virtually the same thing. “We probably all stumbled on the same tricks to keep the yeast going,” he laughs. Dogfish Head used seven strains of yeast in the first batch, but only two this year–all beer yeasts.
Sixteen barrels were brewed in June 1999 and released in December, at a strength of 18.1 percent, the strongest beer ever brewed. Shortly after, Millennium appeared, with a final alcohol by volume of 20 percent.
“The project forced us to further education. You become hyper-aware of every detail,” said Calagione. “Hopefully, you walk away hyper-aware, in general, when you go back to normal beers.
“But there’s another reason to do this. Heading into the year 2000, the mass media said ‘Microbrewing is over.’ This was a chance to say ‘Wait a sec, guys, there’s something going on.’
“The search for glory was good for the whole industry. It raises the bar. People outside the beer geek press see friendly competition and say, ‘Wow, there’s still a lot of excitement in this industry.’ We held the record for strongest beer ever brewed for about three weeks, until Millennium was released. Jim [Koch] called and said, ‘Great job. I’ll send you some Millennium; send me some World Wide Stout.’”
There are two casks of Millennium left, and it will not be brewed again. If annual production of World Wide Stout continues, it will, for now, be the strongest beer in production in the world.
“We worked hard on Millennium,” said Koch. “We wanted something extraordinary. Whether the millennium had a deeper meaning or not, there were people all over the world doing extraordinary things. And out of all the brewers on the planet, we were the ones that brewed the most extraordinary beer.”
“I think that had dignity and coolness.”
Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer Magazine, the oldest American publication for people who love beer. Johnson won the 2007 Beer Journalism Award (Trade and Specialty)—later named the Michael Jackson Beer Journalism Award—from the Brewers’ Association. She has had a regular column in the News and Observer, and now in the Independent Weekly, both based in North Carolina.