It’s time for another item from the DC Omnivore 100 list of the top one hundred foods every good omnivore should try at least once in their lives.
Finding a beer above 8% alcohol by volume isn’t the challenge that it once was. The emergence of the craft beer movement in the past few decades and American beer aficionados unquenchable thirst for unique and challenging brews has caused the market for strong beer to explode. This is not to say that highly alcoholic beers are something new. In nearly every, beer-drinking country aside from the US, breweries and monasteries have been crafting batches of potent beer for centuries. It’s only in America that the trend has recently come into vogue.
If you’ve graduated from the typical grocery store, great American swill, you recognize that not all beer is created equal. There are full bodied beers, crisp and refreshing beers, fruity beers, darker beers, and so on and so forth. Each has something special that makes it unique, but each still has the same basic ingredients (barley, hops, water, and yeast) and each is created with variations on the same, basic brewing process.
Here is a brief overview: malted barley is boiled with water to create a sugary concoction called “wort.” The wort is filtered to remove the barley grains and then mixed with the hops and boiled again, a process which adds flavor (hoppiness), concentrates to sugar, and pasteurizes the brew. The hopped wort is then cooled and mixed with yeast to ferment. Through some sort of wonderful magic, the yeast converts the sugars in the wort to alcohol over a period of weeks or months and, eventually, beer results.
The general theory behind creating a more alcoholic beer is to give the yeast more sugar to react with and more time to react during. The most common method for accomplishing this is to boil more barley to increase the sugar in the wort, or to just add straight sugar to the wort prior to or during fermentation. The fermentation time is longer than typical and can run up to several years. The beer will generally sit in vats for a while and then will be bottled or casked and stored, much like wine.
This brewing process normally yields a very full bodied, flavorful beer. Due to unusual amount of barley, stronger brews are typically malty and sweet, and obviously carry a strong, alcoholic flavor. The added sugar can give the beer an almost syrupy quality, which makes it very rich and filling. Normally, a more efficient yeast is used in the brewing process to increase the abv, meaning that many strong beers are ales (as opposed to the slower acting lager yeast).
Belgian ales have historically had the corner on the 8%+ market, although many American brewers have adapted traditional English styles to be more alcoholic. In the Belgian category, quadrupples, tripels, strong ales and dark ales are your most alcoholic styles. Allagash Brewery in Portland, Maine brews all of these types and they are available in the DC area, albeit on a seasonal basis. Belgium’s Brouwerij Huyghe also has some strong beers in the popular and common Delerium line.
Getting into the traditional English styles, barley wine (not actually a wine) is always a safe bet for a high abv beer. It has strong hoppy flavors and a medium body. Shenandoah Brewing Co. in Alexandria makes a pretty decent version, although its availability is spotty. Another English variety is the Imperial Russian Stout, the king of beers. IRSs are very complex, pitch colored and thick, with strong, malty and alcohol flavors. Stone Brewing Co. of California makes one of the best and most widely available Imperial Russians and it is definitely worth a try. Drink it slightly warmer (but still cool) and slowly as it boasts an impressive 10.5% abv.
If you’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’ and just want to try the strongest, most alcoholic beer you can lay hands on, look no further than Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA. This beer is so intense that it borders on undrinkable, at least in my opinion. It has a whopping 18-25% abv, depending on the batch. This is over four times the average for beer! It costs around $8 per 12oz bottle and can be had at Rick’s Wine and Gourmet in Alexandria. I’ve had it once, and now that I can say that, I doubt if I’ll ever try it again.
So there is your very brief and incomplete intro to the world of strong beers. Most of the brands that I’ve mentioned can be found in Total Wine and More or any specialty wine shop in the DC area. My personal advice, though, is not to drink beer simply for its alcohol content. Beer should be enjoyed for the craftsmanship and ingenuity that goes into it and for its unique flavors and textures. High abv effects all of these qualities, often favorably, but is typically an afterthought in my beer selection process. Still, all of the beers that I mentioned are highly regarded and worth a try. I’ll warn you that none are beginner beers, so tread with caution and drink responsibly. Feel free to offer your own beer suggestions.