When writing this column, it is my habit to focus on beers you can buy in Birmingham. Once in a while I deviate from that practice when there’s an interesting story involved. The story surrounding the recent release of BrewDog’s The End of History, a beer with 55% alcohol by volume, definitely merits a mention in Hopped Up.
More than anything else, The End of History is a brilliant marketing ploy. It is not something proponents of the Nanny State need to worry about contributing to widespread drunken debauchery as only 12 bottles were made available for sale, all now sold out. A quick Google News search as I write this turned up over 100 hits for this brew, pretty amazing considering no more than 12 people will ever taste it (unless the buyers share).
I would like to set this story in a little context for readers who may not have followed the “extreme beer” phenomenon over the past decade. It seems hard to believe now, but as recently as 1993, Samichlaus was the strongest beer in the world, boasting a mere 14% ABV. Then in 1994 the Boston Beer Company released Samuel Adams Triple Bock, a pitch black, syrupy beer with 17.5% ABV. There were only three releases of Triple Bock, in 1994, ‘95, and ‘97.
As the turn of the millennium approached, Jim Koch at Boston Beer hatched a plan to release an even stronger beer, appropriately named Millennium, which would be over 20% ABV. Unbeknownst to Koch, Sam Calagione at the (then small and largely unknown) Dogfish Head brewery was also planning an extreme beer to celebrate the arrival of the year 2000, an imperial stout he called World Wide Stout. Calagione had brewed World Wide Stout to be the strongest beer in the world at 18.1% ABV, a title which he fairly claimed for a very short time as he beat Millennium to market by a few weeks in late 1999.
In 2002, both men again pushed the boundaries of what everyone thought possible with beer. Calagione brewed a batch of World Wide Stout that hit 23% ABV, and Koch released his first batch of the now famed Utopias, clocking in at 24% ABV. The folks at Dogfish Head would tell you they could rightly claim the title for producing the world’s strongest fermented beverage since Utopias was aged in a variety of barrels that had previously aged port, whiskey, and other spirits, so it got a boost of strength from the alcohol left in the barrels. World Wide Stout never touched a barrel of any kind.
Both breweries received plenty of free publicity from the competition for the world’s strongest beer, but Calagione seems to have lost interest in that particular arms race, dialing his World Wide Stout down to 18% and keeping it there consistently. He has since opted for getting publicity from other unusual brews, such as Chateau Jiahu, reportedly brewed from a 9,000 year old recipe recreated from ingredients found in pottery jars discovered in an ancient Chinese village.
Sometime last year, a tiny little brewery in Germany called Schorschbräu released a 31% ABV beer they called Schorschbock, advertising it as the strongest beer in the world. Later in 2009, the clever guys at Scottish brewery BrewDog recognized an opportunity to benefit from the sort of publicity garnered by Boston Beer and Dogfish Head early in the 21st century. They just barely beat out Schorschbräu with a 32% beer they dubbed Tactical Nuclear Penguin. The ploy worked and they received worldwide media attention for their efforts.
The Schorschbräu guys, possessing some marketing savvy of their own, decided to retaliate. They released a new version of Schorschbock featuring an incredible 40% ABV. You can probably guess what happened next. In February of this year, BrewDog proceeded to fire back with a 41% beer, calling it Sink The Bismarck!, a reference to a German battleship sunk by British forces in World War II. A few months later Schorschbräu released yet another installment in the publicity-fest, a 43% ABV Schorschbock.
That brings us to The End of History, the beer BrewDog claims will be its final shot fired in the ABV war. They went a bit overboard, beating out the previous 43% record with a whopping 55% beer. And the publicity has rolled in.
Not only has BrewDog garnered widespread attention for releasing the strongest beer ever made, they have sparked discussion among beer geeks over the definition of beer itself. That’s because unlike most beer, The End of History (and their previous record-breaking beers) is not fermented all the way to 55% ABV; no yeast can survive at alcohol concentrations that high.
To reach that level of alcohol, BrewDog employed a technique called “fractional freezing.” Which—when applied to alcoholic beverages—is commonly called “freeze distilling.” They froze a much lower alcohol beer repeatedly, each time removing ice blocks with low alcohol concentration and leaving a liquid of higher concentration. A Wired article on the beer stated the brewery’s yield for it was half of one percent. So for each bottle sold they started with a volume of beer equivalent to 200 bottles. That low yield was a big factor in the beer’s price tag: $775 a bottle.
While in some regards I find the whole “high alcohol arms race” a bit absurd, (especially when the current record-holder only made twelve bottles), I respect the marketing brilliance involved. And I think the publicity is a net benefit for craft beer awareness, as news of a 55% ABV beer can’t help but make some people reconsider their perception of beer as a bland, watery beverage.
Don’t be surprised if Schorschbräu makes a move to regain the record before the end of the year.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org