There has been a bit of excitement in recent weeks in beer circles after two breweries claimed the record for the highest alcohol content in a beer. Boston Beer Company, the American firm behind the Samuel Adams brand, has just released their Utopias. This once every two year event involved a beverage that is beer in technical terms only. You see, the 2009 Utopias is 27% alcohol by volume. There is no missing the point there. By using specialty yeasts and secret techniques, the company has been able to far surpass the usual limits of brewing. (Traditional beer yeasts usually have trouble tolerating more than 8 or 9% alcohol.) Scottish BrewDog followed on with its ‘Tactical Nuclear Penguin’, sliding in at the ridiculous 32% alcohol level.
“What is the point,” you ask? These beers are a marketing bonanza, selling for a premium and creating a lot of buzz and coolness that increases sales of their other beer products. We have had the opportunity to sample prior versions of Utopias, and found it to be sweet, with alcohol and toffee flavors reminiscent of a tawny port or a sherry, though not nearly as pleasant.
Not all extreme beers are one off novelties. American breweries have been making “double” or “imperial” versions of their beers, indicating that the essential style has been retained but flavours increased. The double or imperial IPA (India pale ale) style is very popular with hop lovers, and has become a fixture in many breweries. Other extreme versions of beer styles include imperial porters, imperial brown ales, and even an imperial pilsner. In general the higher alcohol content and stronger flavours make these beers a “share a bottle” event, sipped slowly and contemplated. Certain breweries have become specialists in extreme brewing. American breweries Three Floyds, Stone Brewing and Dogfish Head, and the aforementioned BrewDog in the UK are good examples.
What is a curious Kiwi to do? Firstly some examples of these beers are being imported, though not into our local supermarkets. The Malthouse and Hashigo Zake, both bars in Wellington, have several available. There are also mail order sources such as thebeerstore.co.nz. The good news is that the high alcohol content mean the beers tend to travel well, and in some cases even improve with age. Secondly you can be on the lookout for locally produced extreme beers. While nothing we have experienced approaches the 10% alcohol monster beers that are being produced abroad, Kiwi breweries are being inspired to produce their own extreme beers.
Pink Elephant (transplanted from Brightwater to Marlborough) are the forerunners of local extreme brewing, having made 7% alcohol beers when that was unheard of here. While their Mammoth is a lovely and impressively flavor-packed beer, it adheres fairly well to a traditional barley wine style, and doesn’t quite fit the new “extreme” label. Their neighbor, Renaissance Brewing, however recently produced a seasonal MPA (Marlborough Pale Ale) which was a textbook double IPA, with 8.5% alcohol and intensely high hoppiness.
And Nelson is about to get a taste of Epic Brewing Company’s Armageddon, heavily promoted as “an apocalyptic assault on every beer lover’s pre-conceptions and taste buds,” with a keg due to start pouring at The Free House any day as of this submission. With a reported 6.66% alcohol and a high hop rate, it won’t really be more extreme than IPA’s like Yeastie Boys His Majesty 2009, but it certainly isn’t anything like a standard Kiwi draught lager.
Originally published in the Nelson Mail.