Creating the World's Biggest Beers

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 30, Issue 5
November 1, 2009 By

You might call them craft beer’s nuclear club.

We’re talking about breweries that have pushed the alcohol content of beer past 20 percent by volume, through the process of fermentation alone.

Just as enriching uranium 235 to build an atom bomb requires a considerable degree of technological prowess, so does coaxing yeast into frenzied acts of metabolism that nature never intended.

Both accomplishments carry a heightened degree of responsibility. Nuclear weapons could cause mayhem if they fell into the hands of terrorists. And super strong beers could also provoke mischief if unsuspecting drinkers downed them at the same rate they would a Bud or Miller. These leviathans of the malt beverage world have to be packaged, priced and marketed differently from normal beers. Drinkers have to be educated to enjoy them a few ounces at a time, the way they would an after-dinner shot of some fine brandy.

But there is one key difference: there are probably more nations with nuclear weapons than there are breweries that have surpassed the 20 percent ABV mark.

Alcohol is a byproduct of yeast’s digestion of sugar, and yeast can no more live in their own waste product than human beings could thrive in a room filled with carbon dioxide. The average brewer’s yeast cannot survive in a concentration of much more than 10 percent alcohol, states Neva Parker, lab manager for White Labs, a leading provider of yeast to craft brewers. At higher levels, reproduction halts, followed by failure of other metabolic functions. In the pre-scientific era, she doubts that even the most potent barley wines and doppelbocks measured more than 10-12 percent alcohol. Modern science, stresses Parker, can isolate and propagate strains that have a high tolerance for alcohol, and establish a brewing regimen to coax these yeasts into giving their all. But it’s a labor-intensive process requiring skill and patience.

Nowhere Beer

Boston Beer Co. has crossed the 20 percent threshold six times, once with Samuel Adams Millennium (a one-shot brand released in 2000) and four additional times with the 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2007 vintages of Samuel Adams Utopias. The 2007 release, measuring 25.6 percent ABV, earned a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s strongest commercially available beer.

It will relinquish that honor when Boston Beer releases this year’s version of Utopias in November. The 2009 vintage clocks in at 27 percent ABV, more than five times the strength of a typical beer.

Utopias is a word that Sir Thomas More invented,” says company chairman Jim Koch. “It means nowhere… a place that doesn’t exist. This beer was a place that didn’t exist. We imagined it and made it real.”

The package—a ceramic bottle sculpted to resemble a brew kettle and painted gold—holds 24 ounces of a ruddy, copper-colored liquid, completely still (“the alcohol pushes the CO2 out; it won’t go into solution,” explains Koch). The first sensation is a rich mouthfeel and a sweet sherry-like flavor, with nuances of vanilla and maple. There are notes of dark fruit (mostly plum, with some prune and raisin), with traces of oak and phenol. A long, lingering alcohol burn reminds one more of a cognac or brandy than a beer. The 2007 edition is a little darker, richer and more port-like than the previous version of this biennial beer.

Utopias begins its existence at the company’s pilot brewery in Boston. The grain bill consists of mostly pale with some crystal and Munich malt, between a pound and two pounds per bottle, estimates Koch. With so much malt, the hops—25 IBUs of Hallertau, Spalt and Tettnang—are definitely supporting players, adding a faint spiciness.

Run-off can take an entire day. The viscous, sugar-laden liquid then undergoes a vigorous, 21-day primary fermentation. “At high kräusen it looks like it’s boiling,” says Koch. “It gives off enough heat that we actually get drops of ethanol condensing on the sight glass of the tank.”

After the primary fermentation, the brewers add maple syrup, rich in simple, easy-to-digest sugars, to coax the sated yeast cells into continuing the fermentation,sort of like plying your guests with pie a la mode after they’ve gorged themselves on a sumptuous Thanksgiving meal.

The beer is diverted into barrels for a leisurely aging. “We have a library of hundreds of casks,” notes Koch. Some previously held whiskey, some wine, some brandy. Others are made of new French oak. Portions of this year’s Utopias were aged in bourbon casks from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, and finished in sherry casks from Spain, and muscatel and port casks from Portugal.

Utopias is unique, adds Koch, not only for its strength, but for the fact that the brewing is decoupled from the packaging. Boston Beer brews Utopias once a year, but an individual batch might have to wait years before it gets used for the blending process.

Some of the liquid blended to make the 2009 Utopias has been aging for 16 years, says Koch. He’s referring to Samuel Adams Triple Bock, his first attempt at a super strong beer. Packaged in cobalt blue bottles and measuring 17 percent ABV, the Triple Bock (released in 1995) set a record for its time but was less than a total success flavor-wise. It tended toward the cloying, with lots of raisins and dark fruit and a sweet, heavy mouthfeel.

Koch says that, in the intervening decade and a half, he’s learned a lot about yeast management and how to prevent autolysis—the rupturing of the cell membranes that can cause unpleasant meaty and sulfury flavors in the beers. His barrel farm has served as a Darwinian laboratory, selecting for thicker-walled cells with a high alcohol tolerance. The latest version of Utopias employs over half a dozen yeast strains, estimates Koch, including at least one champagne variety. There are certain barrels where these mutant ninja yeasts have kicked the alcohol up to 28 or 29 percent. Koch believes, however, that he’s nearing the tolerance limit of the species and we won’t see any major increase in alcohol in future versions of Utopias.

Act fast if you want to sample this beer. Boston Beer Co. is releasing “a little over 10,000” bottles nationwide (actually, a little less than nationwide, since Utopias is illegal in 13 states due to alcohol caps). Suggested retail price is $150 per bottle. It’s pricey, but the cost does include a coupon redeemable for a specially designed Riedel snifter glass to enjoy your Utopias nightcap.

Sam vs. Sam

The Sam Adams brew crew might own the record for the world’s strongest beer, but Sam Calagione likes to boast that he makes the world’s strongest beers that actually taste like beer. The founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, DE, has crossed the 20 percent ABV threshold with three of his brands. Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA has a delicate, almost herbal hoppiness poking through mountains of malt, a result of a continuous hopping during the two-hour boil with high-alpha varieties. Dogfish Head World Wide Stout is an über-imperial stout with a chocolate-brown head and a flavor full of roast, bittersweet chocolate and fruity notes. Raison D’Extra—currently on hiatus but expected to return in 2010—is a pumped-up version of Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre, a strong, malty brown ale brewed with beet sugar and green raisins. Expect to pay around $10 for a 12-ounce bottle of these behemoths.

Calagione has reached a pinnacle of 23.5 percent ABV with his World Wide Stout and briefly wrested the title of strongest commercial beer away from Boston Beer, before Jim Koch reclaimed the trophy with his Utopias. Since then, Calagione has reeled in all three beers so they now measure “only” 18 percent. He explains, “We (and on-line beer enthusiasts) prefer these beers at 18-ish ABV. We can dial in the final gravity better. While the really big beers always taste malty young, the 18 percent ABV versions get drier and more complex after a year” than the original bigger versions.

Normally, Calagione is quite chatty about his brewing techniques, but he declines to discuss the brewing regimen for his super strong beers. He elaborates, “We do not share our techniques for brewing beers over 12 percent ABV as they took many years to develop—the average tank time for a beer we make over 12 percent ABV is a little over two months, so in addition to the higher ingredient cost, you also have to factor in the lost-opportunity cost that comes with tying up a fraction of your capacity for extended times.”

However, earlier interviews with Calagione suggest that the secret resides in tag teams of yeasts, as well as extremely long fermentation and conditioning times. An article in the December, 2000 Mid-Atlantic Brewing News notes that the original 1999 batch of World Wide Stout employed seven yeast strains, while the 2000 batch used only four: a standard ale strain, a Belgian yeast, a champagne variety and a special type well-adapted to high alcohol concentrations.

This year, Dogfish Head is on target to brew over 3,000 barrels of beers topping 12 percent ABV. Other formidable offerings include Olde School Barleywine (15%) and Fort (18%). The latter, a raspberry ale, is very probably the world’s strongest fruit beer. It’s remarkably spritzy and light on the palate, the beer equivalent of pink champagne (although well above the typical 10-12% ABV content of wine).

Colossus: Beer You Can Nuke

Colossus, from the DuClaw Brewing Co. in Abingdon, MD, is completely different from any of the previously mentioned beers. As independently confirmed by the Siebel Institute in Chicago, it measures 21.92 percent ABV. Brewer Jim Wagner describes it as “beer-meets-mead-meets-sweet wine.”

Wagner brewed a single 22-barrel batch of the beer back in late 2006. “It’s not a beer you can toss your yeast in, oxygenate, and walk away,” he recalls. “It required a lot of TLC and a lot of consultation with Dr. White at White Labs,” which supplied a “super-high gravity yeast strain,” one of four yeast varieties used in the fermentation.

Similar to Utopias, Colossus started out with what Wagner calls “a lower-gravity feeder fermentation,” with simple sugars added later on to spur the yeast into a renewed feeding frenzy. Primary fermentation took about 12 days; secondary fermentation, 30 days. During the aging, Wagner spiced the beer with coriander and cinnamon (the latter is easily detectable even though only four ounces were added). The beer was bottled in one-liter, wax-sealed, swing-top bottles and sold for $35 a bottle. Look for the remainder of the lone batch to be released around the holiday season at DuClaw’s four affiliated bars and a few other Maryland outlets. Wagner will also be pouring samples at the Brewers Association of Maryland Oktoberfest in Timonium, MD on Oct. 10.( Check out for additional details.)

If you’re lucky enough to get a bottle, Wagner recommends letting the last couple ounces go flat, then popping a glass into the microwave and heating it at 105 degrees Fahrenheit. “It totally changes the complexity, the flavor, and the aroma.”

Still another possible member of craft beer’s nuclear club is Grand Lake Holy Grail Ale from Grand Lake Brewing Co. in Grand Lake, CO. Brewer Eric Kohl whipped up a single 100-gallon batch of this super barley wine in 2003, using 700 pounds of pale malt. The original gravity, he said, was beyond the ability of his instrumentation to measure. The beer might have reached 20 percent ABV, he estimates, but, at any rate, it’s no lower than 17 percent ABV.

Kohl says he added no sugar to the wort. “I got into an argument with Jim Koch, who said it wasn’t possible to brew a beer of that strength with all malt. I wish he would have told me before I did it.”

Originally, noted Kohl, his beer “had a weird, almost Belgian characteristic, but now it’s more like a cross between a tawny port and a sherry, with a liqueur kind of quality.”

Kohl intended to age the remaining 15 gallons of his beer in blackberry whiskey casks and sell them later this year at his brewpub for $40 for a swing top-style liter bottle.

The Shadowy World of Eisbock

A list of the world’s 50 strongest beers that I googled on the Internet listed several other 20-plus percent ABV superbrews, including a few that claimed to top Utopias. Heading the list were Schorschbräu Schorschbock (31%) and Südstern XXL (27.6%), both German lagers. A Pacific Northwest microbrewery, still active today, insists that it made a 29 percent ABV barley wine 15 years ago. Perhaps the most outrageous claim I’ve ever heard was from the brewer of a long-defunct Ohio brewpub, who asserted that he made a 35 percent ABV double bock for his private reserve.

All the above beers were made through the German eisbock method, which involves freezing the beer until a layer of ice or slush appears at the top, then sloughing off that layer to concentrate the alcohol in the remaining liquid. This process is called fractional freezing or freeze distillation.

Some of the more extreme claims have to be taken with a grain of salt, particularly if the brewer estimated the alcohol with a few seat-of-the-pants calculations and didn’t submit it for independent laboratory verification. Consider: the freezing point for water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The freezing point for alcohol is a frigid 173 degrees below zero. A mixture of the two will freeze at some point between these temperatures. I don’t have the mathematical ability to calculate the freezing point for a 30 percent ABV beer, but I imagine that it would tax the ability of most refrigerator coils and would require liquid nitrogen to freeze it further. Koch says that as an experiment, “We took the Utopias down to fifteen below. it was still flowing freely.”

There is another problem with these eisbocks and eis-barley wines: they’re illegal.

The federal alcohol code allows brewers to chill beer until ice crystals form, and remove up to 0.5 percent of the volume; that’s how the big brewers make ice beers. But anything beyond that is considered a distillate and can’t legally be made on a brewery premises. (Of course, some small brewers do it under the radar.)

Before readers fire off angry letters to the federal Tax and Trade Bureau, arguing that Eisbock is a traditional German style, bear in mind that Uncle Sam is actually very friendly towards super high gravity beers.

The government’s definition of “wine” sets an upper limit of 24 percent ABV. However, “beer” is defined as any malt-based beverage 0.5 percent ABV and higher that’s fermented and not distilled. There is no limitation on the maximum alcohol it may contain.

What’s more, all beer, regardless of alcohol content, is taxed at the same level of $18 per barrel. Small brewers, those who produce fewer than two million barrels a year, get a tax break of $7 per barrel on their first 60,000 barrels.

That might change.

The Senate Finance Committee, seeking ways to fund President Obama’s ambitious health care initiatives, in May proposed raising alcohol taxes as a possibility. The excise tax on beer, under the proposal, would rise dramatically, from the current $18 to around $45 a barrel.

What’s more,  the proposal recommends imposing proposal speaks of “a uniform tax based on the alcohol content contained in the product.” Does that mean that beer styles beyond the baseline 5 percent, like doppelbocks, barleywines and imperial IPAs, would be taxed even further? Will you need to take out a mortgage to buy a bottle of Utopias?

Noting that craft brewers depend much more on these higher-alcohol brews, Brewers Association president Charlie Papazian has denounced the proposal as “a tax on small brewers” and warned that “American beer culture, as it exists today, would be severely compromised.” Fortunately, the proposal, as I write this in late July, does not appear to be gaining support and faces opposition from a well-organized and powerful beer lobby. Perhaps we’ll dodge this bullet.

Not so easy is to dodge is the burgeoning demand for these limited-edition, high-alcohol beers. DuClaw’s Jim Wagner recalls that at the 2008 Brewers Association of Maryland Oktoberfest, he tapped a 15.5-gallon keg of his Colossus and began pouring four-ounce samples. “It lasted half an hour.” A quick scan of eBay revealed an unopened bottle of the 2007 Utopias (complete with Reidel taster’s glass) seeking a buyer willing to pay $350. An empty bottle of the 2005 Utopias had attracted a bid of $175. A charity auction conducted by Boston Beer Co. two years ago brought an amazing $2,125 winning bid for a bottle of the 2007 Utopias. He who hesitates when these rarities hit retailers’ shelves might wind up paying a lot more on-line.