Extreme Beer

When is a beer not a beer anymore? Perhaps when it’s stronger than whiskey.

There’s an arms race going on in the craft beer world right now. Until last year the “world’s strongest beer” record holder had long been Sam Adams’ 25% ABV Utopias. Whether it started as a purist quest to push the boundaries of beer, an easy way to get some free publicity, or most likely both, a feisty brewery in northern Scotland called BrewDog has been making headlines as it engaged in a cat and mouse game with other European brewers.

BrewDog launched a 32% imperial stout in response to a 31% beer by a German brewery called Schorschbräu. The latter fired back with a 40% brew, prompting the Scots to create a 41% IPA. A Dutch brewer called Brouwerij ‘t Koelschip stepped in at that point with a 45% ale, and BrewDog lashed back with a 55% Belgian ale wrapped in taxidermic squirrels (it’s exactly what it sounds like), and then ‘t Koelschip one-upped them again with a massive 60% ale just over a month ago.


How do they cram that much alcohol into a beer? Surely it must be distilled, right? Well, sort of. I can’t speak for all of them, but BrewDog’s method appears to be freezing off water and decanting the more concentrated result.

Is this race finished? Who knows. There must be some theoretical limit to just how much alcohol you can cram into a beer, but just when it seems things can’t possibly get any more insane someone manages to push the limit even higher.

And why on earth…? Says ‘t Koelschip’s Jan Nijboer, “we’re just having a little bit of competition, with a smile, you should see it as a joke.” Thanks for clearing that up, Jan.

So as you can probably imagine, I absolutely had to get my hands on a bottle or two and see just what such a potent beer tastes like. With a bit of luck on my side I managed to sample two of them this summer.

Tactical Nuclear Penguin, 32% ABV

The first in BrewDog’s series of insanity, I brought a bottle to split with other beer aficionados at a summer BBQ. This one started life as an imperial stout, then got aged for 8 months twice over in unspecified Arran and Islay casks (this is made in Scotland after all) and finally spent time freeze-distilling at -20º C.

The first sip? Smoke, smoke, and more smoke. Faces were made. It was like drinking a campfire and a whole pack of bacon at the same time. But we opened the bottle, so we pressed on.

Though the smoke never went away, it subsided a bit after a few sips and that’s when I noticed there was a very good imperial stout underneath. The alcohol was not as evident as you’d think. I expected a strong burn like a spirit, but I’ve previously had a couple different 18% beers and I found the alcohol profile a lot closer to them. Noticeable, but not overbearing.

Final rating: 6/10. The smoke was overbearing, but there are hints of a good beer in there.

Update Jan 2011 – I managed to have a good dose from another bottle of the Penguin on New Year’s Eve, and it had improved drastically. The smoke had backed off considerably and that tasty stout I noticed underneath was far more upfront. I’m increasing my rating to a 7, and I bet with another year or two of age this one could have even gone as high as a 9. Sadly, I doubt that I’m likely to have the opportunity to try it again in a few years, so that’s only theory.

Sink the Bismarck!, 41% ABV

This was the one I was really interested in trying. A quadruple-hopped, whisky-strength IPA? Yes please. A well-timed trip to Scotland by an acquaintance willing to skirt customs landed one of these in my hands a few weeks back.

The first sip was shared with a half dozen or so beer geeks, and I think we all had the same question at the same time: what the hell just hit me?

It’s important to emphasize at this point how much I like hops. The more the better. I had prior only vaguely wondered if there might be some extreme point at which I can’t handle hops anymore, and this beer found it immediately. Each sip felt like straining a hit of low-grade whisky through a mouth full of pine and numbing grapefruit peel. There is absolutely no subtlety or balance to this one, it’s a psychotic fifty foot high love letter to all things Humulus lupus.

Unlike the Penguin, the alcohol burn is immediately obvious and lasts all the way down. Over the course of an hour, between 15 people, we barely managed to finish the entire 12oz bottle, and the next day a fuzzy numbness lingered across my entire mouth.

Final rating: 3/10. It was an experience alright, but not one I ever need to repeat.

I’m surprised at the results of this tasting, because most beer rating sites have given the Bismarck a higher rank than the Penguin. It’s possible the beer styles and time between brewing and consuming had something to do with this. Hops are fairly quick to break down, whereas an imperial stout can be aged for months or even years. Maybe if I’d had the Bismarck sooner my take would be different. Maybe.

What I do know is that my personal quest for high ABV beers is safely over. These are interesting as a novelty, but there just isn’t any other situation I can think of that calls for beer of this magnitude.


One Response to “Extreme Beer”

  1. Posted on September 11th, 2010

    Excellent post Dave. As one of your “beer geek” friends, I love experimenting and trying unusual takes on beer, but I too feel that sometimes they end up gimmicks lacking in any real substance.

    Much like I’ve been known to enjoy beer that has been infused with fruit flavours, there comes a time when it’s just too overpowering and ruins what should, in my opinion anyway, be a quality beer underneath.

    Next time you do one of these quests and require a tasting partner, give me a buzz and I’ll gladly “assist” you! ;-)

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