Or in other words: Is it even beer after it crests a certain ABV? We asked the experts to find out.
High-alcohol beer doesn’t stop at your average 8 percent double IPA. We’re talking knock-your-dignity-off high. Like Scottish brewery Brewmeister’s recently released Snake Venom, which is 67.5 percent alcohol by volume and claims to be the world’s strongest beer.
This is a new level of ABV, but trying to cram extra booze into beer isn’t a new phenomenon. High-octane brews have flowed in Germany and Belgium for years, says Anne Becerra, a certified cicerone and beer director at New York City’s Treadwell Park. America was a touch slower to embrace the hard stuff, especially after Prohibition, says Jon Holl, senior editor of Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine and author of the American Craft Beer Cookbook. For several generations, 5 percent beers, or what Holl calls “beer-flavored beer,” dominated the marketplace. “Then, in the 1970s,” he says, “when home brewing became popular, the people who got into it really ran the other direction.”
Enter Snake Venom, which is so viscous that it can’t be carbonated, mostly due to the high sugar content, plus the fact that brewers have to remove excess water to get a beer to this ABV. Andrew Chapman of Brewmeister explains that it’s “so dense it can’t hold the bubbles in the same way a traditional beer can.” It’s also so fuerte that the manufacturer warns a proper serving is just 35 milliliters—or a thimble about the size of a pony shot. Which brings us to a question: Is this even beer?
“The simple, technical answer is yes,” says Ryan Newhouse, a beer writer and host of the beer travel show Beermuda Triangle. “So long as it was brewed with a malt base and fermented with yeast, it is still a beer.”
But that’s where the similarities to your favorite pale ale end. If you think a 15 percent or higher ABV beer is going to be a refreshing sip after a long, hot bike ride, you have another thing coming. Rich and filling, a very high-alcohol beer is going to have the taste and mouthfeel of something more like a sherry or an aperitif. “These beers are sharing experiences,” says Holl. And ideally, they should be served warmer than a lighter brew. Newhouse suggests cellar temperature, which is between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s these qualities, however, that could make them an appealing backcountry companion. While packing in a whole six-pack is a hassle, a single bottle of high-alcohol beer is more than enough for your entire camp crew. Plus, if it gets a little warm in your pack, it won’t ruin the experience. The only trouble is that brewers make few of these beers at a time, the hype is fierce, and the prices are usually high—some bottles cost as much as a fine whiskey. So we asked experts to suggest five bottles significantly above the usual ABV range (hovering around 15 percent or more) that are actually worth trying.
Schneider Aventinas Eisbock
Eisbock, which literally translates to “ice beer,” is a traditional German brewing style that came about by accident. Many years ago, beer would get exposed to really cold temperatures in the winter. The nonalcoholic liquid would freeze faster than the alcoholic one. Brewers began removing the frozen clumps, and then realized they’d left a more potent liquid behind, says Becerra. Schneider is a pretty easy brand to find on this side of the Atlantic. It’s only 12 percent, but notes of plum, figs, and clove make it feel rich and plenty strong.
An Italian barley wine, Xyauyu probably has more in common with a madeira (a Portuguese fortified wine) than with its American IPA cousins. The 14 percent ABV beer is dark brown with hints of sweet cherry and toffee, and Becerra says it’s one of her go-to after-dinner drinks. Pair it with a square of the dark chocolate you packed in.
Sam Adams Utopias
Every few years, the Boston-based brewery comes out with a 20 percent or higher barrel-aged beer that beer nerds go absolutely nuts over. These bottles cost a lot of money ($200) and are incredibly hard to get your hands on. There’s even a whole black market where Utopias (and other rare beers) are sold. Newhouse says the best way to get one (legally) is to sign up for updates from Sam Adams, and be ready to jump when the next release is announced. The black market is a no go, by the way. There’s a fair amount of fake alcohol being sold. In fact, Snake Venom, the 60 percent-plus beer, is currently having trouble with Chinese imposters selling what is less Snake Venom and more snake oil.
Avery Brewing Co. Rumpkin Imperial Pumpkin Ale
“Whether you are in the ‘love’ crowd or ‘hate’ crowd with drinking pumpkin beers, Rumpkin is very strong and very flavorful,” says Newhouse. The beer is 16.9 percent and aged in rum barrels. Boulder, Colorado–based Avery Brewing Co. knows strong beers, too. The company sponsors the Boulder Strong Ale Festival, which showcases only beers over 8 percent ABV. Though this beer is only sold regionally, it’s not impossible to get. Log onto a beer forum and try to find a beer pen pal—someone in Colorado who will send you some of their backyard brews in exchange for you shipping some of your local favorites.
The Bruery’s Black Tuesday Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout
“If you wanted to cellar a beer for at least a few years, this is the one,” says Newhouse. He explains that Black Tuesday is quite boozy when it’s first brewed, and then it sits in whiskey barrels while its flavor mellows out for about a year before it’s bottled. With 19 percent alcohol, this beer will only get better with age—say, a year or two in a cellar—but we understand if you can’t wait that long.