Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Rise of Higher Alcohol Beers

My wife and I split a bottle of stout one evening a couple of years ago. It was a large bottle (many microbreweries I like sell beer in 22 oz. bottles) but still I was surprised to feel the effects. “I’m becoming a real lightweight,” I thought – until I looked at the bottle and discovered that it was 11% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Since then, I’ve been surprised time and again to find I’m drinking a beer that’s high in alcohol (in the 9%+ ABV range). These are not styles I expect to be high in alcohol (such as the Belgian doubles and triples I enjoy occasionally), but IPAs and stouts. What’s going on?

The key is that many of these beers are labeled “imperial.” This refers to a style called Russian imperial stout originally brewed for the Russian court in the 1700s. They made it higher in alcohol for a simple reason: it’s extremely cold in Russia! Getting the beer there during the long winter months without freezing necessitated the need for a high alcohol content (since alcohol doesn’t freeze as easily).

It seems that many microbreweries have extended the imperial style to other types of beer, especially India pale ales. In fact, the Beer Judge Certification Program has also recognized imperial IPA as an official style. They could easily just call it “strong” or adapt the Belgian approach and use “double” or “triple” but “imperial” is likely a better marketing technique!

As with the hops war I wrote about in November, I suspect the creation of these new styles and higher alcohol content is an attempt by some breweries to distinguish themselves from the pack in a crowded market where it’s hard to get shelf space. (See the comment from the brewmaster at Butternuts about why he chose to produce his beer in cans.) I also imagine that it’s fun for the brewmasters to try different things.

In theory, I could care less about the alcohol level in a particular beer. What matters to me is whether the overall beer. That is, do the malt and hops balance one another? Does the alcohol content overwhelm the beer? My rule of thumb for beer is simple:  you shouldn’t be particularly aware of the presence of alcohol. If you do particularly notice the alcohol, they’ve probably got the balance wrong. If that happens, you should immediately seek the remedy of a better and more well-balanced beer. (See my beer reviews for suggestions!) 

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