You might have noticed them a bit more lately, slinking long and willowy on the side of your glass. Perhaps you feel tempted to run your fingers along their entire length, tracing the curves from beginning to end. Legs have a different look, one that implies luxury and suppleness. Their viscosity might have the consistency of coconut oil. Not exactly what you expect from your beer.
Beer typically has a head, with lacing that sticks to the sides of the glass —intricate, like Irish tatting or delicate, like a gauzy web. The foam may be moussy, with large rocky holes, reminiscent of a lunar landscape. But when it has legs, beer imprints the glass with a secret—a potency of alcohol that warns the drinker, “Beware.”
Jim Koch of Boston Beer Company, aka Sam Adams, started the shift to high alcohol beers in 1993. As a brewer, he was always trying something new—brewing with emerging hop cultivars, unconventional spices, a robust yeast strain—pushing the limits. At the time, his latest experiment would reveal just how high the alcohol level could climb in a traditionally- brewed beer.
His idea, at the time, was outrageous. Along with malted barley and Noble hops, Koch added maple syrup; then fermented it with California champagne yeast. His creation slept in Tennessee and Kentucky whiskey casks and emerged like a piece of art, dressed in cobalt blue glass with a hermetically sealed cork. At the time, this Triple Bock clocked in at 17.5% ABV, but Beer Hunter Michael Jackson wrote, “The result might better be described as a barley wine,” with the “fatness and power … of Madeira.”
In 1999, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware, brewed his off-centered World Wide Stout with so much barley that it went against the grain of economic sense. He was on a mission, though; reaching for those high ABVs and a flavor that worked. A Port-like beer emerged, with flavors of rich chocolate, lingonberries and plums, and the heat of booze, immersed in robust body. This one had a head, but the alcohol seemed to eat it quickly, while legs emerged, long and glossy. It rocked between 15-20% alcohol by volume. World Wide Stout had toppled Triple Bock, but not for long.
Jim Koch released Sam Adams Millennium in 1999, just in time for the new millennium at 21% ABV. It was the next generation of Triple Bock, aged in oak for four or five years, selling for $200 a bottle. Utopias MMII followed in 2002, with additional Utopias released in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009. This last version captured the crown in the Guinness Book of World Records as the strongest beer on the planet at 29% ABV.
Utopias 2009 marked a shift from traditional methods of brewing high-alcohol beer to state-of-the-art methods of fractional freezing, also called freeze distillation. In this method, the temperature of fermented beer is lowered until a dilute solution of alcohol in water, best described as a poorer- quality beer- mix, freezes. It is removed. Then the process is repeated until the remaining liquid is infused with rich, high-quality alcohol. The result is a beer that is often described as intense, round, torrid and lustful, like a fruited cognac or fine liqueur.
Consumers are repeatedly shocked at the appearance of these beers. They carry an oily appearance, devoid of head. These are sipping beers. When swirled in a brandy snifter, they deposit a thin layer of “liquid glass” on the surface that breaks into lustrous legs, slipping gently back into the liquid from which they emerged.
Fractional freezing became a phenomenon overnight. The race was on to produce beers of ever-higher alcohol levels, without burning-out the throat of the consumer. The idea is to create a beer with concentrated flavors, resulting in a pure product, untainted by additives that could pump the levels up artificially. This is beer, pure and simple.
The contest for supremacy has turned into the Daytona 500 of High Alcohol Beers, a constant race toward the outer limits. Since Sam Adams grabbed headlines with Utopias in 2009, a friendly rivalry between Germany and Scotland has emerged. Georg Tscheuschner, owner of Schorschbräu in the Franconian Lake region of Oberasbach, has regularly traded places as front runner with the brewing team of Watt and Dickie of BrewDog in Fraserburgh and Aberdeenshire.
As Schorschbräu released Schorschbock 31 at 30.9% and Schorschbock 40 at 40%, BrewDog came up to the surface with Ghost Deer, Tactical Nuclear Penguin, and Sink the Bismarck, with alcohol levels pushing 41%. BrewDog attacked again with a roiling punch from The End of History at 55% ABV, and Schorschbräu trumped with Schorschbock Finis Coronat Opus, (meaning “the ending crowns the work”) classically inspired by Ovid. This 57.7% beer is presented in ceramic, swing-top bottles, sealed in wax— each one personally signed by Tscheuschner and tucked into a wooden box. It is elite, like cognac, and rare. Only 36 bottles were made.
Records are made to be broken, and another Scottish brewery emerged from the woodwork with Armageddon, at 65% alcohol by volume. Lewis Shand, Founder and Co-director of Brewmeister in Aberdeenshire, is proud of his 100% Scottish spring water which he claims adds to the easy drinkability of Armageddon. Repeatedly, reviews indicate that the 65% alcohol level is artfully hidden, while rare-beer enthusiasts express skepticism that it could possibly be that high. Perhaps it is not. It seems like a good time for the beer police to do their own taste-test.
Since its official christening as the Best Beer Drinking City in America in 2008, Philadelphia has upheld its reputation as an advocate of well-crafted, local and international beer. Many of these leggy beers are hidden in the discreet nooks and cellars of beer bars throughout the city, so you might wish to go on a beer hunt in search of the goods. Seek out Struise Black Damnation, Darkest Night, or Mikkeller Heavy Black. Get your beer-dawg to sniff out Dogfish Head World Wide Stout, aging gently in the secret recesses of its Milton, Delaware warehouse. Utopias have been spotted in suburban Philly, so “Come, Sit and Stay.”