In the beginning, man created beer — the same boring one-dimensional stuff, easy drinking and light, meant to be served ice cold. (Hello Coors light! Bonjour Canadian!) Then came the craft movement, with beers as creative as Starbucks coffee was to that once-sleepy industry.
Many of these experimental brews happen to be much higher in ABV (alcohol by volume) as well, as craft brewers pursue the most extreme flavours possible. Many of these intense flavours require higher grain content, ultimately spiking the alcohol levels of the final brew.
Yet high alcohol beers are hardly new. The British, Germans and Belgians have been brewing boozy beers for years, since they discovered increasing the alcohol content made the beer more stable for storage and export. Furthermore, new brewing techniques have elevated ABV levels even higher than historically possible.
Today, many breweries have produced beers with alcohol contents that far exceed those found in spirits. Known for pushing boundaries, Scottish Brewer BrewDog concocted an immensely alcoholic beer. “The End of History” has a whopping ABV of 55 percent. To reach this colossal potency level, a fractional freezing technique is employed. This involves cooling the beer so that the water content freezes while the alcohol remains in its liquid form. The water is then separated from the alcohol, increasing the beer’s body, flavour and alcohol content. Only 11 bottles were made available worldwide, and sold stuffed inside either a taxidermied squirrel or stoat (shhhh! Don’t tell PETA). At $650 USD and $900 USD respectively, it’s also one of the most price-potent brews in the world.
Unfortunately (or, fortunately), a $900 beer isn’t typically the sort of thing most of us would opt for if we want something hearty to warm us up on a chilly autumn evening. Still, the palate of the new generation of beer drinker is often looking for brews that are different, tasty and assertive.
Rainhard Brewing, one of Toronto’s newest players in the craft industry, is responding to the growing demand for innovative beers. A homebrew heavyweight who has won several brewing awards, Jordan Rainhard is an excellent example of an entrepreneur leaving his corporate marketing day job to follow his passion. “I could not find the beer I wanted to drink, so I decided to make my own,” Rainhard says. “I brew what I love to drink and that’s hoppy styles.”
Many of these “hoppier style” beers also have a higher ABV content. “Our style is high ABV, but we aren’t forcing it. I didn’t set out to brew a 10 percent ABV beer. When I’m crafting a recipe, I start with the malt and decide what kind of base flavours I want and where I want to take it. Some breweries dump flavourless dextrose to the brew to bump up the ABV. At Rainhard, we don’t add any sugar. We don’t just throw hops into a beer; we want to achieve a balanced IPA, so we add malts to intensify the flavour. Our goal is to create a well balanced and complex beer,” notes Rainhard.
The concept of “more is more” holds true here, as in more added malts, more flavour and more alcohol. He further explains, “Every brewmaster wants to push the boundaries. We are all very competitive, yet there is a sense of camaraderie. Everyone is trying to one up on each other. Who can brew a sessionable beer with the most flavour and the least alcohol? On the other spectrum, who can brew a high ABV beer that is hop forward yet well balanced?”
High ABV beers are commonly referred to as “high-octane,” and when it comes to beer, high-octane refers to high gravity beers, which is based on the difference between the original gravity (how much sugar is in the beer before fermentation) and the final gravity (how much sugar is left over after fermentation). A beer with a lower final gravity tends to be drier and crisper. Conversely, a higher final gravity beer will be sweeter and have a malt backbone. (A nice tidbit of info to flaunt before your beer geek friends!)