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POB -- Michael J.Lewis

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High crimes and high alcohol beers

Some wine critics bemoan the continuing trend in the wine industry to make wines with more alcohol. Not all critics agree that this is a bad thing. But if my experience with beer has anything to offer here I agree that excessively high alcohol content sacrifices refinement, elegance and delicacy and limits too much the opportunity to enjoy several beers or wines in a session.              

The same high alcohol trend is in the craft beer industry that is a part of what I call the extreme beer movement. Such beers appeal to a small but noisy category of drinkers (“the beer Nazis”?) and I think this has been a drag on the overall growth of the craft industry because extreme beers suit too few consumers and turn off too many others. Fortunately, in the last several years or so, craft brewers have caught on to the need for more approachable products and we have seen an extraordinary growth recently.  Winemakers in the United States cannot add fermentable sugar (Chaptalization) to grape juice for more alcoholic wines and their options for reducing alcohol are somewhat limited. Brewers have a good deal more flexibility.              

When brewers make beer they are in charge of the amount of alcohol the product contains. They choose how much malt and other cereals they use to make up the grain bill. They can then manipulate the mashing process, mainly by temperature choices, to determine how much of the extract is fermentable sugar that makes alcohol and how much is not and doesn’t. If they wish, they can then add sugar that is completely fermentable or choose among many syrup products that can tweak the fermentability (alcohol potential) of the wort. At the end of the day, when the beer has been made, they can dilute the beer to a standard alcohol content by the simple and straightforward strategy of adding water to it.

In fact this is a common process used to increase efficiency. Its called High Gravity Brewing. By this practice, wort with a high original gravity passes through the process in a concentrated form. It is then diluted to sales alcohol strength just before packaging. Brewers refined the technology of doing this over many years and some brewers by this strategy can now realize an increase of plant efficiency of up to 25%.              

For beer that is sold with a high alcohol content, there is a small fly in the brewers’ ointment: as the alcohol content of beer goes up the cost goes up, not only because there are more raw materials used, but brewing for higher alcohol can be less efficient in time and yield. So, to an extent greater than one might expect, the price of a high alcohol beer is more than a low alcohol beer.              

Curiously, the high alcohol content and consequential high price of some beers has spawned criminal behavior on the part of some beer consumers and has caused a very sensible and useful reaction by the craft brewing industry. Here is the story of one brewery.             

Dogfish Head brewery (incidentally now about to merge with Boston Beer Co) makes a wide range of beers some of which have in excess of 15% alcohol; they are expensive. This beer attracted the attention of the beer-drinking criminal class (which I suspect is a rather large cohort) who noticed that Dogfish Head used a copper colored crown (the proper term for a bottle-cap) and the same brown bottle for most of their beers. It was thus quite easy and an irresistibly attractive temptation, quietly and surreptitiously, to swap out a few bottles of cheaper beer, for example India Brown Ale, from its six-pack holder and swap in a few bottles of expensive beer such as World Wide Stout; at checkout, the six-pack would look perfectly normal. However, the bar code reader records the lower price and the thief walks out with expensive beer while paying for a cheaper product.              

What to do?              

Dogfish Head brewery makes a few beers over 15% ABV, others in the range 9-14% but most are below 9% (still quite a lot of alcohol for beer that is drunk in 12-ounce volumes). The solution was simple and, it turns out has a value beyond thwarting the thieves; it may even have a place in the wine industry.       

Dogfish Head replaced the copper colored crowns on 15%+ alcohol beers with a bright yellow crown with the classic ! warning sign so these would clearly show if mixed into a six-pack. To proscribe other similar swaps, 9-14% beers received a red crown and all others retained the original copper-colored crown. Not only does this solve the problem of swapping-out cheap bottles of beer and swapping-in expensive ones, but the yellow ! also sends a useful and clear warning to the beer-consuming public about the alcohol content of beers they are about to imbibe. I think that is a piece of information worth having and perhaps should be adopted industry wide.

In fact, in a talk at the Craft Brewers Conference some years ago I advised brewers who sell high-alcohol beers without a label statement of ABV strength might be exposing themselves to suit if the consumer gets into trouble.              

Here is a personal note about wine that will convince you I’m a wine moron. When I drink wine I drink red wine. However, I always add water to it, sometimes a little sometimes a lot, which helps me deal with the acid and alcohol and, I find, much improves my enjoyment of the aromas and flavors that I think dilution brings out.


Michael J Lewis MUG Picmonkey

Michael J. Lewis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis, and the academic director and lead instructor of UC Davis Extension’s Professional Brewing Programs. Lewis has been honored with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas’ Award of Merit and the Brewers Association’s Recognition Award. He is an elected fellow of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He is also a recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award. 

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