A look at the ‘super-alcoholic’ beer market

Founders' KBSFounders’ KBS

Founders’ amazing KBS

Look closely at the shelves of any better beer store and you’ll notice some monsters lurking. No, I don’t mean skunky beers or the latest fruit-flavored offerings posting as craft beers but brewed by the big boys, I’m talking about beers that fall into the “wine and above” level of strength.

These monsters, and I’ll define them as beers above 10 percent ABV for the sake of this column, are breeding and rising from the depths like Godzilla and his foes. They can also be destructive to drivers who take them too lightly. These beers are best when shared with friends and loved ones, not so much for chugging at the bar and getting behind the wheel.

All warnings aside, high-ABV beers can be wonderful drinks. When in North Carolina, I managed to find the highly-sought-after Founders KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout), and was able to buy two bottles. This 11.2-percent beast may very well be the best beer I’ve had to date. Loaded with a stunning complexity of flavors like bourbon, chocolate, coffee, and vanilla, it was silky smooth and not at all “hot.”

KBS succeeds where a lot of monsters fail — taste. It manages to still be a beer and not alcohol-flavored super-sweet malt beverage. Let’s leave those booze bombs to the flavored vodka crowd. It takes skill to balance all the sugars that a high-ABV beer requires, and brewers who manage the feat are to be commended for their ability.

Huge beers require big, bold styles. You won’t find almost any worthwhile monster pilsners (I certainly haven’t), so most beers that fall into this realm are barleywines (not actually wines), imperial stouts, imperial IPAs, Belgian strong ales, and the like. Without plentiful hops or other balancing effects like barrel aging, beers will simply be too sweet when they get this strong.

I’m not a huge fan of these super-alcoholic brews, but I have definitely tried some that are worth seeking out. One of those “seek-worthy” brews is Pretty Things’ Grampus, but I mentioned that in my last column about the ACBF, so I’ll skip it for today.

One of my favorite huge beers, and one that’s not incredibly hard to find, is Allagash’s Odyssey, a Belgian Strong Dark Ale. It’s partly aged in oak barrels and is a massive brown ale with notes of molasses, candy sugar, dark fruits, oak, wheat, and vanilla. This incredibly-complex brew weighs in at 10.4 percent ABV and about $15 for a 22-ounce bottle. It’s well-worth the expense, though, so buy it if you find it and stash it away for a special night.

Last weekend, I managed to put my hands on two bottles of Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA. Weighing in at a massive 18 percent ABV and costing approximately $8 per 12-ounce bottle, this is definitely a beer to savor. I shared one with friends on Saturday night and will store the second one for at least 6 months, as I could tell that this was still “young”. The beer’s alcohol flavor was strong, but not unwelcome, and was evened out by the massive hops, sweetness, and slick mouthfeel. 120 is much harder to find than Odyssey, so if you see it, grab it.

This wouldn’t be a monster beer column without mentioning the ABV-pushing brews by Clown Shoes. Masters of the imperial stout, Clown Shoes puts out a whopping 15 beers that are more than 10 percent ABV and 9 imperial stouts. I’ve only had a few of their really big beers, and can recommend the 12.5 percent Blaecorn Unidragon and Porcine Unidragon as worthy purchases. Both are rich, full-bodied Russian imperial stouts that favor dark chocolate/roasted coffee flavors over sweetness.

An equally delicious Russian imperial stout is Foolproof’s Revery, which I mentioned in a column last year. Quite possibly the smoothest beer on this list, Revery hides its 10.7 percent ABV well, so don’t be fooled when you taste it and think you can have several without incident.

Next column, we’ll explore the opposite side of the coin: low-alcohol “session beers,” sippers that manage big flavor with little ABV numbers.

 I really appreciate feedback! Hit me with ideas for beers, events, or breweries at www.facebook.com/GoodBrewHunting or via email at goodbrewhunting@gmail.com.

Originally published on June 19, 2014.