Samichlaus. HeBrew Jewbelation. The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight Returns. A rundown of the world's strongest alcohol-by-volume (ABV) beers reveals one incontrovertible truth: Like patrons, this is where brewers turn to let off a little steam.
"The high-octane beers are like the Wild West of brewing," says Colin Mullen, head brewer for Barley John's Brew Pub in New Brighton, Minn. "It's a beer profile that you're not going to taste from the normal resources available. There's some regional breweries that go after it, and some of the bigger ones, of course. It stretches the capability of the yeast, which is always a white-knuckle ride. You're pushing a natural process — which is fun for us."
The biggest ones thus become something of a freak of nature. A popular New Brighton watering hole, Barley John's has earned a national reputation for its seasonal malt mutants: The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Returns and Rosie's Old Ale. Each begins life as a normal, if punchy, brew: "Old 8" porter (8 percent ABV) for the Knights and "Wild Brunette" wild-rice brown ale (7.5 percent) for Rosie. Mullen then blesses them with a secondary fermentation of yeast and sugar, resulting in elevated ABVs of 14 percent for the Knights and a downright steroidal 15.5 percent for Rosie. They spend from eight months to two years in bourbon barrels (second-use casks, natch, for the Batman-inspired sequel) and emerge as musclebound beer monsters.
"The highest I've been able to reach is 17 (percent)," Mullen says with more than a hint of pride. "With all the additions, the math gets a little fuzzy."
Brewers add all sorts of things to their batches to coax up that ABV. Multiple fermentations are often bolstered with different yeasts and enzymes, though Mullen says the latter shortcut is never used at Barley John's. "The Utopias and other beers, they use enzymes to try and break it down and go after the complex sugars," he says. Asked if it's analogous to tipping the scales, Mullen doesn't break rank with his brewing brethren: "I don't know if there's cheating. It's worth noting that you had some helpers. I use all sorts of different yeasts to get where I'm going."
Samuel Adams Utopias is the Boston Beer Company's bid for the Holy Grail of hops: the strongest commercial brew ever made. The 500-pound, 50-proof gorilla of its "extreme beer" line, Utopias received that crown in 2002 when it bowed with a 25 percent ABV. This month saw the latest annual production, which numbers 53 barrels, or roughly 9,000 24-oz. copper-kettle bottles, each selling for $150. The noncarbonated syrup is rated at an ungodly 27 percent ABV, illegal to be sold in 12 states and recommended in 2-oz. pours at "room temperature in a snifter glass." All of which begs the question: It may be a record-setter and delicious as a digestif, but is it beer?
"Normally beers can't ferment above 12, 12.5 percent (ABV)," says Dan Stein, digging through a cooler full of bottled diesel at Stein's Market and Deli on Magazine Street. "That's when you start introducing Champagne yeasts, things like that."
Excepting charcuterie, high-octane beer may be Stein's specialty. He stocks Andygator and Abbey Ale, the big daddies of Abita's line at 8 percent ABV. But they only represent the mean in his selection. "That's my shtick, that's my thing," Stein says of the heady brews. "There's so many different genres. There's barley wines, there's Belgians, there's American imperial IPAs (India pale ales), there's Russian imperial stouts. Each of those categories by definition comes in above 8 or 9 percent. I usually have three to 10 or 12 per category. So you're looking at almost 45 beers."
Each style offers a different flavor profile. Barley wine is a misnomer, so named because of its winelike strength and character, which can range from sticky-sweet (U.K.-style) to bitter and hoppy like a pale ale (U.S.-style). Belgian Trappist beers originate from one of six centuries-old monasteries and are ranked according to color and corresponding oomph: blond, dubbel, tripel and quadrupel, the latter of which is also referred to as Belgian dark strong ale. Imperial IPAs and stouts represent beefed-up versions of their namesakes, and are typically among the most hop-centric and mocha-focused brews, respectively, on the market.
At Stein's, the selection tops out (in price and alcohol) with Dark Horizon, an award-winning, pitch-black imperial stout from the Norwegian brewery Nøgne O. The half-liter bottle sells for $20.99. Its ABV: 17.5 percent. Stein's personal favorite changes with his mood, but he's partial to the Belgians and American imperial IPAs: "I like bitterness on the back end, from roasted malts or hops."
Stein has also consulted on a number of area beer-tasting dinners, the next of which (Dec. 7 at Boucherie; call 862-5514 for reservations) will feature selections from Quebec's Unibroue, producer of the popular Maudite (8 percent ABV), La Fin Du Monde and Trois Pistoles (both 9 percent). The stout-and-chocolate connection is just the beginning of the food-pairing possibilities, he says. "They do very well and they're very good beers. I cherish them. People who drink them are not drinking just to get shitfaced; they're drinking them because of the flavor profiles. Budweiser to me is an alcoholic soft drink. That's all it is: Coke with a little bit of alcohol in there to ease your nerves."