October 20th, 2016/ BY Silvana Lau

Winter is coming! Nothing warms you like a nice stiff beer

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!)



So the $64,000 question: what ABV percentage is considered high-octane? There is no concrete definition. In fact, it is culturally dependent and depends on where you live. For example, if you are at a pub in England, most of the beers are very sessionable, — a fancy word for a pint of beer that is suitable for a lengthy drinking session — clocking in between four to five percent ABV. In other words, between four to five percent of your 20-ounce pint glass is pure alcohol (or ethanol for you science nerds out there). Low in alcohol (three to five percent ABV), sessionable beers can be consumed in large quantities, within a reasonable period without getting intoxicated. (Yes, you can drink and enjoy beer without getting drunk!) It is suggested that the term “session” originated during World War I in England. Munitions workers were allotted two allowable drinking periods or “sessions” between shifts and many of them spent those breaks in their local watering holes. Workers would be able to enjoy an adequate amount of quaffable lighter beers and return to the factory without getting inebriated.

Considering the term’s origins, the British view any beer greater than five percent ABV to be high-octane. Moreover, beer in the UK is taxed based on alcohol content, creating a reason for brewers and drinkers to avoid the higher potency styles found in other countries. (For example, RateBeer.com, a website dedicated for beer enthusiasts all over the world, considers beers with seven percent ABV to be the starting point for high-octane beers.)

Rainhard defines high-octane brews in terms of style. “In my opinion, eight-point-five percent ABV for IIPA (double IPA), and nine percent for stouts is the threshold,” he explains. Okay, what about from the Canadian government’s perspective? Please inspect the beer bottle in your hand. If you don’t have one in your hand, go to the nearest fridge and fetch one (the bottle will serve as a visual aid and a reward for reading). Beer in Canada is labelled according to guidelines by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. If the label simply says “beer,” it contains between four-point-one percent and five-point-five percent ABV. “Strong beer” is used when the alcohol content is greater than five-point-six percent and “extra strong beer” is at eight-point-six percent ABV or higher. “Double,” “triple” and “quadruple” are all more or less self explanatory. Sometimes alcohol percentages can be implied in the name of the beer (Delirium Tremens anyone?) One labelling term that’s being used with increasing frequency worldwide is “imperial.”

The term “imperial” dates back to the 1700s when beer (usually stout) was brewed in England and then shipped to the imperial court of Russia. Over the centuries, brewers started using “imperial” to denote a style of beer that is heftier, hoppier and more sophisticated than the traditional versions of the beers that inspired them. Simply put, if you see “imperial” on anything, be warned that these beers pack a bit of a kick. If you enjoy the classic style (IPA, stout), more than likely you will enjoy the more intense, revved up imperialized version as well.

For some, the amount of “bang” in the beer is a deciding purchasing factor. For others, like me, seasonality and food matching count for more. So if we are going to be drinking and eating with the seasons, how do we pair these high gravity beers with food?

As the days get shorter, ‘tis the season for pitch-black imperial stouts, robust barley wines, and chewy double IPAs. Sure, these strong beers are excellent for “après-ski” and shovelling breaks, but they are also very versatile in the food-pairing department. Since some of these high gravity beers share the characteristics of port, sherry, cognac, and other after dinner tipples, and can be served in their place. Or, if you are anything like me, an imperial stout or barley wine can actually be liquid dessert. Speaking of dessert, this Thanksgiving, try a caramel-y barley wine with your pumpkin pie. For an even more decadent treat, nibble on a piece of pungent blue cheese while sipping barley wine from a snifter. The buttery creaminess of the cheese intermingles with the thick, viscous elixir enhancing both the cheese and the beer.

For a grown-up version of an ice cream float, replace the root beer with an imperial stout. The incredibly rich deep chocolate and coffee notes are in harmony with the creamy vanilla ice cream.

When pairing high gravity imperial IPAs with food, focus on the three dominant flavours in the beer. Hoppiness, bitterness and caramel. Hop flavours complements spices and light fruits. Bitterness has a cooling effect and it amplifies salty and umami flavours, meaning it works great with curries and other spicy foods.

When the leaves start to turn from green to orange, my mug of suds changes from a sessionable IPA to an imperial IPA; or from an English bitter to a barrel aged quad; a Berliner Weisse to a barley wine. Just as my shorts and sundresses are packed away, to be replaced by jeans and cosy sweaters, the beer equivalents of “The Boys of Summer” are sent on their way, their light, golden tans and simple character supplanted by the darker, spicier, stronger and more mysterious high-octane brews of winter.



Rainhard Brewing Lazy Bones IPA Toronto, Canada 6.7% ABV ($6.95/650 ml)

Seductive dank citrus and resinous pine in the aroma. A very solid take on a West Coast style IPA, with big juicy citrus hops enveloping your tongue, followed by a moderate presence of bitterness. The pungent tropical fruit gives off a perceived sweetness, but the beer is very dry. If you drink enough of these, you will get lazy. A perfect sipper for a lazy Sunday … actually, perfect anytime.

Nickelbrook Bolshevik Bastard Imperial Stout Burlington, Canada 8.5 % ABV ($9.95/341 ml, 4-pack)

Skip the dessert and have this instead! Dark, intense brown, almost black in colour, with a thick creamy head that subsides quickly. Cocoa, vanilla, dark fruit, and coffee aromas. The flavours don’t fall too far away from the smell. Although it has a creamy and silky mouth feel, it is a tad thin. Don’t be intimidated by the 8.5% ABV; the roasted malts hide the alcohol strength. Goes down so effortlessly that you can be a total bastard if you aren’t careful. Na zdorovye!

Unibroue La Fin Du Monde Triple Style Golden Ale Chambly, Quebec, Canada 9% ABV ($7.99)

A Belgian Tripel pours like Champagne! A hazy golden colour, with a touch of amber. A stream of fine bubbles rising to the top, with a nice prickly effervescence rush in the finish. Underneath the aromas of spicy cloves, orange peels, banana, and coriander are mellow yeast notes that pleasantly linger on with a warm after finish. The subtle sweetness of the malt leaves the mouth salivating for more. If it really is the end of the world, I need another.

Rainhard Brewing Asystole IIPA Toronto, Canada 8.5% ABV ($8.95/650 ml)

This imperial IPA is anything but a standstill. Asystole is aggressively hopped and full of life! Simcoe, Centennial and Amarillo hops are added 6 times throughout the boil and then it’s double dry hopped in the fermenters. Although the aroma has a resinous, pine and citrus bouquet, this is much more than a smack-you-in-the-face-with-a-bag-of-hops ale. An East Coast style IIPA, it balances out the hop bombs with the malty flavours of biscuit, honey and caramel. At 8.5% ABV, this beer is dangerously drinkable. One too many and your heart may flatline. Consider yourself warned.

Les Trois Mousquetaires Grand Cuvée American Barley wine Quebec, Canada 10% ABV ($12.50)

If you are a hophead like me, then this is the barley wine for you. This American barley wine is much more hop-forward than its English counterparts. Brown sugar, caramel and biscuit integrate together with aromatic, juicy tropical hop notes of citrus, pine tree and resin. A big melting pot of flavours. The hop punch provides a welcoming level of hoppy bitterness to accompany the thick and syrupy orchard fruit sweetness. Boozy and sweetens considerably as it warms. Don’t age the barley wine for too long. You need the fresh hops to balance out the cloying sweetness. Try it with a spicy andouille sausage gumbo. Alternatively, it would go great with a chocolate cheesecake. The hops would cut the richness of the cake. Think of this as IIPA’s maltier and boozier cousin. Recommended for all hopheads.

Rainhard Brewing Hearts Collide Propeller Coffee Edition Russian Imperial Stout Toronto, Canada 9% ABV ($8.95/650 ml)

When 2 hearts collide, love conquers every time. The love story of Rainhard Brewery and Propeller Coffee (a local Toronto coffeehouse and roaster) begins by infusing cold brew coffee into the beer, which contains 9 different types of malts. The resulting love child is a luscious and velvety brew packed with rich roasted coffee and cocoa notes that are rounded out by the assertive bitterness of the Warrior and Centennial hops. Not as boozy as the 9% ABV would imply. Keep an eye out on your heart, or in this case Rainhard’s experimental beer, “we will use the base beer every year to try something new, this year we focus on coffee, next year, we will collaborate with another local product and infuse it into the beer.” Rainhard explains. What a beautiful love story.

Bellwoods Brewery 3 Minutes to Midnight Imperial Stout Aged in Cognac Barrels Toronto, Canada (Price unavailable)

Bellwoods Brewery, known for creating delicious finicky-to-make Belgian-style beers offers this stupendously delicious black forest cake in a bottle. This limited release is part of their extensive barrel-aging program. Pleasant tartness from the cherries mingles with plum, prune and dark chocolate, complementing the lingering bitterness of the roasted malts and oak. The cognac presence is evident, with notes of dried apples, fall spices, and subtle butterscotch. Sip on this with a slice of black forest cake. Cherries, chocolate, cognac, I’m in love as this thick and viscous elixir hugs the tongue with each sip.

Black Oak Brewery Epiphany 2 Imperial Pilsner Etobicoke, Canada ($8.95/650 ml)

Not ready to swap in your pilsner for a heartier brew? This beer will transition you from summer to fall, one sip at a time. Part of the Epiphany series, this is a new initiative from Black Oak’s experimental brews. Aroma of subtle cereal notes, bready malt, floral hops and a bit of spiciness. This is not your dad’s watery pilsner. This unfiltered pilsner starts with a sweet biscuit malt base and ends with a mild grassy and peppery finish. Although more robust than a standard pilsner as a result of the imperial heaviness and caramel sweetness, the alcohol heat is well hidden and goes down dangerously smoothly. There may be a chill in the air, but don’t put away the barbecue grill just yet. This jacked up pils would complement a grilled bison burger perfectly. Recommended for those who are still in denial that summer is really over.

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