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The World's Strongest Beers

Beer is thousands of years old but new technology is creating "extreme beer," which packs an alcohol level closer to whisky or vodka

By Mike Hanlon

Alcohol is the oldest and most commonly used of all recreational drugs, with annual sales exceeding USD 1000 billion a year. Beer has been the world's most popular alcohol since well before the invention of the wheel with annual sales now exceeding US$500 Billion — roughly the GDP of Indonesia, the 18th largest GDP of any nation.

Most of the world's beer has between 4% and 6% Alcohol By Volume (ABV), and the strength of beer achieved by traditional fermentation brewing methods has limits, but a well crafted beer that is repeatedly "freeze distilled" can achieve exquisite qualities and much higher alcohol concentrations.

An escalation in the use of this relatively new methodology over the last 12 months has seen man's favorite beverage suddenly move into the 40+% ABV realm of spirits such as gin, rum, brandy, whiskey and vodka, creating a new category of extreme beer. A little more than twelve months, the world's strongest beer was 27% but due to an informal contest to claim the title of the world's strongest beer, has suddenly jumped in strength dramatically and this week we spoke to the brewers at the centre of the escalating competition. New contestants are gathering, and the race is now on to break 50% alcohol by volume.

The astonishing aspect to these recent developments is the how quickly a new market can evolve after ten millennia of time-honored tradition. Hindsight is the only true 20-20 vision, and in retrospect, it's just as surprising that it has taken so long for such a popular product to evolve into a new category.Beer is the third most popular drink of all of the planet's people, taking into account all cultures and geographies. Only water and tea are consumed in greater volumes. Amazingly, it still outsells coffee, the second most internationally traded raw commodity, behind oil.

Just when commercial brewing started is not clear, though it goes back to the very roots of civilization and appears to have been independently invented across many cultures in almost every part of the world. Remarkably, beer is perhaps twice as old as mankind's most powerful enabling technology - the wheel. Beer, and its cousin, bread, were fundamental to the development of civilization and by virtue of the development of basic machinery to grind grain for the production of both bread and beer, may have even contributed to the evolution of the wheel.

Religion and Beer

This 5000 year old Babylonian tablet is part of a series of tablets that account for an order of 134,813 liters of barley to be delivered to the brewery at the temple of Inanna in Uruk. It is inscribed with the recipe for brewing beer.

The ability of ancient peoples to see far more into the intoxicating powers of alcohol than might be good for them can be seen from the number of civilisations which appointed themselves a God of Beer, beginning an entwinement between religion and alcohol as a sacrament and lucrative income stream that has lasted to this day.

Almost all ancient civilizations which had Gods, had a God of Beer. In Ancient Baltic and Slavic mythology, Raugupatis was the God of fermentation and his partner Raugutiene was the Goddess of beer.

Perhaps even more enlightening as to the many societal roles played by alcohol in general and beer in particular are the dual portfolios many of these Gods held.

The ancient Sumerians (now Southern Iraq) worshiped a Goddess of beer and brewing named Ninkasi. The ancient prayer known as "The Hymn to Ninkasi" offered both homage to the Goddess and a method of remembering the recipe for beer — quite useful in a society where literacy was uncommon. Ninkasi had several other powers to "satisfy the desire" and "sate the heart."

Many brewers in ancient times were women, often priestesses, as alcohol was often of far more ceremonial and sacramental importance in those days than it is today.

The Ancient Egyptian God of agriculture was Osiris who was also known as the God of Beer. In Norse mythology, the God of the sea was Aegir who was also the God of beer and brewing. In the Aztec culture, the God of Pulque (a traditional alcoholic beverage similar to beer) was Tezcatzontecatl who was also associated with drunkenness and fertility, much as beer appears to have been throughout our most esteemed learning institutions as long as they have existed.

The connection between beer, fertility, and matters of the heart appears to be a universal one. In Zulu mythology, the Goddess of beer was Mbaba Mwana Waresa also known as the Goddess of rain and the rainbow and celebrated for her search for true love.

Beer is mentioned in the recorded histories of almost all ancient civilizations, including Ancient Iraq and Mesopotamia. It was part of the daily diet of Egyptian Pharaohs. Chinese civilizations were brewing a beer-like substance known as kui some 7000 years ago. The Ebla tablets reveal that the city Ebla produced a range of beers in 2,500 BC, and Babylonia instituted laws governing tavern keepers in 2,100 BC.

In some African cultures, the Goddess of Beer is known as Yasigi, also known as the Goddess of Dance and Masks. Her statue portrays her as large-breasted female holding a beer ladle while dancing. In the Czech mythology, Radegast is credited with the creation of beer, entitling him to become the God of Hospitality and Mutuality. The ancients choice of ministerial portfolios in the heavens indicate a long standing recognition of beer's ability to lubricate social intercourse and unmask true feelings.

One of the first currencies

So fundamental was the role and relationship between grain, bread and beer, that the early Mesopotamia used a weight of barley as its first currency, bringing new meaning to the phrase, "drinking away the family fortune."

Alcohol has often been an important part of the remuneration of armies throughout history, from ancient times until relatively recently.

Indeed, the more you research beer, the more you see how it has been core to the development of civilization. From wikipedia "it is likely that beer-like beverages were independently invented among various cultures throughout the world. The invention of bread and beer has been argued to be responsible for humanity's ability to develop technology and build civilisation."

The Beer Industry is massive

However long it has been going, beer has become a massive global industry. Humans will drink more than 150 billion liters of beer in 2008, spending USD $450 billion on their favourite recreational drug, providing massive profits to the companies that manufacture it, and a large slice of the revenues of almost all Governments through excises, duties and taxes.

Due to the limitations of transport, freshness and production quantities, for many centuries, breweries serviced a small area, enabling many breweries to develop exquisite skills.

The Fall And Rise Of The Boutique Brewery

When motorized transportation came along, and mass production came into vogue with the industrial revolution, beer's popularity slowly saw it become enslaved by many of the efficiencies of commerce, with acquisitions and effective marketing creating giant brewing companies. One company, Anheuser-Busch, now brews a quarter of all beer consumed globally. Distribution channels have made beer a convenient purchase too — supermarkets and hypermarkets supply 40% of the global beer market's volume to consumers.

The trends of the last few hundred years appear to be turning though. In the most sophisticated beer markets, boutique breweries created by artisan craftsmen are springing up and furthering the art of brewing at an unprecedented rate, using experimentation and science to rapidly craft new drinking experiences and it is the rise of new boutique breweries that has created the new beer category of extreme beers.

The alcoholic strength of beer is usually between 4% and 7% alcohol by volume, thanks to the limitations of the traditional fermentation method.

The Coming of Extreme Beer

For future generations studying the history of beer, history seems to have nicely compartmentalized the emergence of extreme beer into a single decade. In the first decade of the new millennium, the extreme beer category blossomed from the decision by Samuel Adams' head brewer Jim Koch to create a brew to be known as Millennium Ale.

Despite numerous other services to the beer drinkers of America and the world, Koch will forever be seen as the creator of the segment . Koch created Samuel Adams Triple Bock in 1994. At 17 percent alcohol by volume, it set the stage for future exploration in what was to become the extreme beer category. Triple Bock was followed by the commemorative Samuel Adams Millennium, a single release brew made in 1999 for obvious purposes, and it contained 21% ABV.

It was the first extreme beer — the first to broach the 20% ABV content barrier, and its presence and the promotional value of the brew and its offspring, Utopias, created the category and set the stage for what was to happen a decade later using the Eisbock method of freeze distillation — the beer market's equivalent to the nuclear arms race.

Samuel Adams Utopias

In 2002, the first batch of Samuel Adams Utopias was introduced, with an ABV of 24 percent. Utopias was brewed again in 2003, 2005 and 2007 when Jim continued to push for more complexity and strength, producing brews with 24, then 25 then 27% ABV in 2007.

Since 2002, Samuel Adams Utopias has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the strongest naturally brewed beer in the world.

Considering it is the product of a major, internationally-recognized brewery, the production quantities of Utopias brews have been miniscule. Initially, only 8,000 twenty-four-ounce bottles of Utopias were produced in all, with an unprecedented price for a beer of USD$100 a bottle.

Even subsequent productions have been small. Just 12,000 bottles were produced for the 2007 holiday season and 53 barrels (approximately 9,000 bottles) were released in November 2009, at a suggested retail price of USD$150.

Samuel Adams founder and head brewer, Jim Koch says of Utopias, "As brewers, we continue to challenge ourselves to experiment and explore new flavors and brewing techniques in the Barrel Room year after year, and what continues to energize us is that our beer quest hasn't changed.

"It's my life's work to elevate people's thinking about beer and to push the boundaries of traditional brewing in order to offer beer lovers an inspired drinking experience. Today, Utopias is our best example of that quest."

Samuel Adams Utopias is now brewed with several different strains of yeast, including a variety typically reserved for champagne. A blend of two-row Caramel and Munich malts gives the beer its rich ruby-black color and the blend of three kinds of Noble hops; Spalt Spalter, Hallertau Mittelfrueh, and Tettnang Tettnanger give the beer its floral character and spicy note.

The 2009 batch of Samuel Adams Utopias is a blend of liquids, some of which have been aged in a variety of woods, including Scotch whiskey barrels in the Barrel Room at the Boston Brewery for up to 16 years. This longer aging gives the 2009 batch of Utopias a level of complexity not seen in earlier releases.

A portion of the beer was also aged in hand-selected, single-use bourbon casks from the Buffalo Trace Distillery. The extended aging process enhances the distinct cinnamon, vanilla, and maple notes in the beer's flavor. The batch was finished in sherry casks from Spain and muscatel and port casks from Portugal. The sherry casks add nutty, oak, and honey notes, while the muscatel and port casks contribute slightly more elegant, dark fruit aromas and flavors.

The limited-edition 2009 batch of Samuel Adams Utopias was bottled in numbered, ceramic brew kettle shaped decanters. The small batch release comes from just 53 barrels all brewed, blended and aged at the Samuel Adams Brewery in Boston.

Utopias is far more similar to brandy, sherry, cognac or port than to traditional beers.

The Eisbock method

The Eisbock method of beer production has been claimed as the invention of both Canada and Germany. The Kulmbacher Brewery in Germany claims the method as its invention in its packaging, and though we are in no position to adjudicate, if anyone can shed light on the origins of the ice distillation method of beer production in the comments section for this article, we'd be more than happy to update the article.

Despite the vagaries of all legend, there seems to be some consistency that the Eisbock method was accidentally discovered around a century ago when an apprentice forgot to stow two barrels of bock beer into their normal home in a brewery cellar in the midst of winter. The barrels stayed outside, froze, and burst. When discovered, the only liquid that remained was a bock beer extract at the centre of the ice which was much stronger and tastier.

The Eisbock process is far more refined these days, but relies on principles we all learned long ago in chemistry 101. The freezing point of alcohol is lower than the freezing point of water, so by lowering the temperature of the beer to between the two freezing points, it's possible to remove the ice and hence remove the water, distilling or enriching the alcoholic content and the flavour of what remains.

Schorschbräu — three time record holder

The three time holder of the record for the world's strongest beer, Georg Tscheuschner began the Schorschbräu brewery in 1996 in the traditional beer-brewing area of Franconia in Northern Bavaria. When Rome's Legions got to this region in 200 BC they regularly found the locals brewing beer in metal urns up to 500 litres in size. Brewing beer has a long history in the area and Georg is now furthering the legend, intending to make it the home of the world's strongest beers.

Tscheuschner began brewing high alcohol beers some years prior to 2005, but it was with the release that year of his Thunderboch and Thunderwheat Lagers, both 16% by alcohol and both the strongest of their types in the world, that he realized the power of such a title.

In 2008, Georg was invited by a German TV show, as the brewer of the world's strongest beers, to compete against a Berlin brewery in a contest to create the strongest beer. He refused the offer because the contest was framed with Schorschbräu using its normal fermentation methodology, while the Berlin brewery was to use the Eisboch method. "It was like asking me to race a bicycle against a motorcycle", said Tscheuschner, "but it got me thinking and woke up my interest in the methodology." He began experimenting with it and quickly recognized its potential for creating a new drinking experience.

"There are two sides to Eisbock for me", says Tscheuschner.

"By increasing the alcohol to record levels, a lot of beer buyers know my name that didn't know me before and many more people now buy my other beers. It's good for business because you get a lot of publicity"

"The other side is that you can create a very different experience for the beer drinker using only malt, hops, yeast and water. The process increases many of the flavors and depending on the beer you start out with, which might contain say a 100% smoked malt or more hop, you can create some wonderful aspects to this beer. It's an authentic way of creating new flavors and delivering a new experience to the beer drinker.

After experimenting, Tscheuschner released his first world record breaker, the first Schorschbräu Schorschbock, in February 2009, creating what was unquestionably the strongest beer in 10,000 years of beer production. It was to be a record he would hold for just nine months, as other brewers around Europe were also experimenting with the Eisbock method and by claiming the record, Georg had unwittingly created a target for these other Eisbock beer makers.

Brewdog fires up the Tactical Nuclear Penguin

One brewery which set its sights on Georg's record was the Scottish brewery of Brewdog. Run by brewers, James Watt and Martin Dickie, Brewdog is NOT your conventional staid and traditional brewery.

BrewDog was founded in 2006 by friends James Watt and Martin Dickie and produced its first brew in April 2007 from a modest brewery on the Kessock Industrial Estate in Fraserburgh, Scotland. Brewdog, moreso than any other brewery in history, likes to challenge conventional thinking.

From the outset the quality of its beers was extremely high, and has subsequently won the company many awards. Producing brews with names such as "Trashy Blonde" "5am Saint" and "Punk IPA", Brewdog's irreverence garnered much support from the youth market, and sent sales skyrocketing, but its unconventional and challenging marketing and promotional activities raised hackles amongst the establishment and has more than once landed the company in court.

In 2008 BrewDog was challenged by UK drinks industry watchdog the Portman Group which claimed BrewDog to be in breach of their Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks.

BrewDog denied these allegations and countered that Portman was impeding the development of smaller brewing companies. After an 8 month long dispute and a preliminary adjudication which had ruled against the company, in December 2008 BrewDog were cleared of all breaches of the Code of Practice and were permitted to continue marketing their brands without making any changes to the packaging.

A prime example of the eccentric humour of the Brewdog crew was when "Alcohol Focus Scotland" a Government initiative tasked with encouraging responsible alcohol consumption, criticised the brewery's 18.2% alcohol "Tokyo" beer, which according to company publicity, is named after the WWII bombing of Tokyo. Brewdog's response was to create a low alcohol beer and market it as "Nanny State"

Brewdog took such delight in winding up "Alcohol Focus Scotland" that when the agency was approached for comment on Brewdog's latest escapades by no less than the BBC, it

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