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Monday, June 07, 2010

Don't Call Them Beers

A number of folks were linking to an interesting article about the current arms race to make the strongest eisbock. As recently as 2007, Boston Beer's Utopias had the record for alcohol strength at 27%, but beginning last year, two breweries struggled to best each other, pushing the record all the way up to 43%. The principal competitors are Scotland's BrewDog and Germany's Schorschbräu. Apparently the ultimate goal is 50%--well above the typical alcohol percentage of a bottle of liquor.

The article, which does a nice job charting the history of strong beer, is intriguing--but the arms race less so. The road to a 43% beer involves a kind of distillation, not brewing. In brewing, alcohol is produced by yeast; it's actually yeast's excrement, a chemical byproduct of the conversion of sugars. At high enough levels, alcohol becomes toxic to yeast, so there's a natural ceiling for the amount of alcohol you can get through normal fermentation.

The process of making eisbock--which is what all these super-strong beers are--involves dropping a beer to a temperature below the freezing point of water but above the freezing point of alcohol. What results is a half-frozen cask. Remove the ice and you've taken just water, leaving more concentrated liquor behind. (Normal distillation involves heating liquid to separate compounds--but this violence would damage beer in a way freezing can't.) In order to get beer as strong as liquor, you have to refreeze a batch over and over again. Here's Georg Tscheuschner, the record-holding brewer at Schorschbräu:
“To create the 43% beer, I had to filter around 15 times”, said Tscheuschner. “I actually lost count, but I think it was 15 times. You end up with only 50 litres from the 800-1000 liters that you started with. You need to do a lot more filtering to get a beer from 32% to 43% alcohol because whereas in the first filtering (of the ice), you might add say 5 or six percent ABV, but towards the end of the filtering process, it's maybe even less than 1% additional ABV for each filter. Towards the end it becomes very difficult.”
I don't have any problem with eisbocks, but their increasing popularity means we're hearing more and more about 80-proof "beers." These aren't beers. Scotch begins with an unhopped beer and goes through distillation; we call it whisky. When beer is subjected to freeze distillation and is transformed into a liquor of 43% alcohol, it's not beer anymore. Too bad the term "malt liquor" has already been used. Beer liquor? I don't know; just don't call them beers.



  1. Are these beers still naturally carbonated? It does seem to bridge the gap between whisky and beer. New meaning to "brewsky" perhaps...

  2. Barleyjack seems applicable; given the similarity to the making of process for making Applejack.

    Wipik saith: ' . . . made by concentrating hard cider, . . . by the traditional method of freeze distillation . . .. The term applejack derives from jacking, a term for freeze distillation.'

  3. I agree that they are no longer beers. I have been troubled by the recent trend to be more "extreme". I wonder if it takes the focus away from making a truly wonderful, drinkable beer. I include doubles and imperials. While it may promote creativity and experimentation, I think it takes away from the classic styles. I for one find myself reverting back to the classics for the pure and palatable beauty. And, I'm not sure the cost is always justified for a bottle of high alcohol "beer". They seem too much like novelties.

    I also worry about how the trend is influencing beer drinkers. As a homebrewer, I was a bit surprised to get back a score sheet for a 100+IBU beer saying that it wasn't hoppy enough. Might as well make a hop tea with a splash of grain alcohol if no one cares about a malt backbone to support the bittering.

    Just my rant about the race to be extreme.