A couple of recent news stories started me thinking about something I often note but rarely consider a determining factor when choosing a beer: alcohol content.
A story by Devin Leonard in Bloomberg Businessweek, “The Plot to Destroy America’s Beer,” details the profit-making strategies of AB InBev “the dominant beer company in the U.S.” — including reducing the alcohol in its Budweiser and Stella Artois brands in England.
An item published on FoxNews.com, “Scottish brewer unveils the world’s strongest beer,” hyped Brewmeister’s Armageddon, “with an alcohol by volume (ABV) of a whopping 65 percent.”
In 2004, Georgia lawmakers passed a bill that increased the maximum alcohol content in beer from 6 percent to 14 percent. That means that while there are many more beers with an ABV equivalent to most wines in the Atlanta market now, so-called “extreme beers,” like Armageddon, aren’t likely to be sold here anytime soon.
One of the lobbying points Ted Hull and other founding member of Georgians for World Class Beer offered in the long seven year push for the reform that resulted in the 2004 bill was that higher alcohol beers often are more complex and flavorful.
I think that’s true. But when does alcohol content jump the shark and become a gimmick rather than a means to an end?
When I checked in with Hull, recently, wondering how the 14 percent upper limit was arrived at in Georgia, he said it was a compromise: “The feeling was that legislators would require some sort of limit to get it passed. It’s basically the lower end for wine.”
Asked if he thought that some beers might have too much alcohol, Hull said, “High ABV beers, like everything else brewers do, can be executed well or poorly, and the results are evident in the glass. I think the pursuit of alcohol content for its sake alone is strictly a novelty. I’m beyond picking what to buy on that alone.”
To my taste buds, a bad case in point is Scotland’s Brewdog Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a 32 percent train wreck of off flavors that arguably started the “top that” game that continued with Brewdog The End of History at 55 percent — and then came Armageddon.
On the other hand, during Atlanta Beer Week, I was privileged to share a tiny taste of 2011 Samuel Adams Utopias. It’s a beautifully complex 27 percent ABV beer that’s blended from a variety of wood casks, including Sherry and Maderia, that have been aged for up to 18 years. The result is deeply spirituous, somehow both viscous and airy, with spicy, nutty, earthy and dark fruit notes.
Boston Beer Co. founder and brewer, Jim Koch, set a strong beer record in 1994 with the release of the 17.5 percent ABV Samuel Adams Triple Bock. It begat the more extreme Millennium in 2000, and then Utopias, introduced at 24 percent ABV in 2002.
November 2012 brings the 10th anniversary edition of Utopias, a 29 percent ABV blend of batches that includes some of the original Triple Bock and was aged in bourbon casks from Buffalo Trace Distillery.
I’m looking forward to trying this one, and I’m pretty confident that it will hold up to the standards of past years.
— By Bob Townsend, AJC Drink blog