The Resurgence of High Alcohol Brews

It seemed like ultra-high alcohol beer was on the way out. Drinkers were focusing more on session beers designed to be consumed en masse without causing serious inebriation. Others were focusing on reconstructing ancient recipes or on creating the most unique flavor combinations possible. It looks like “big buzz” beer isn’t gone yet, and might be making a resurgence at a liquor store near you. Even the big boys are getting into the act now, and it has nothing to do with “winter warmers”.

It’s a Mixed Bag

It’s been an interesting year for beer sales, all around the world. While the market has actually grown by more than 2%, demand hasn’t risen. The growth seems to be coming from developing countries finally getting into the market, rather than renewed interest within already developed countries. For big brewers, this is a problem, especially for Bud, which has seen a long, slow decline in popularity (much to the joy of craft beer lovers). Not that anyone wants to see the “King” fail, but it’s nice to know that craft beer has had such a huge impact on people’s drinking choices.

Bud has actually lost significant ground recently, dropping by 9% in terms of sales to retailers just in 2012, and that doesn’t account for the cumulative losses the brewery has experienced over the past decade or so. Things might be changing for Bud, though, as they take a cue from craft brewers and try to turn the tables.

The company’s most successful brews to date include the relatively new Platinum line, which is their ultra-premium brew. Now, they’ll be adding another premium option to the list – Black Crown has been given the green light and should be in beer drinkers’ hands in 2013. Black Crown is a definite take off on the craft beer seen, where high alcohol brews have been around for a very long time. 

Now, don’t think that this will be an ultra-high octane brew. Bud can’t quite get up the gumption for that. Rather, it will be about 6% ABV, in contrast to the 5% ABV offered by regular Budweiser. It will offer some other distinctions, as well – beech wood aging and a different finish will set it apart from the watery fare the brewery is best known for. With that being said, Bud is not the only one eyeing a higher ABV as a key to better sales and it remains to be seen if this will be enough to reignite interest in the breweries offerings.

Brewmeister Brewery Starts Armageddon

Brewmeister Brewery out of Scotland (a country that has a history of extreme beers anyway), has announced the debut of the world’s strongest beer. The company’s new Armageddon beer stands head and shoulders over the competition in terms of alcohol content – it boasts 65% alcohol. Brewed with “freeze fermenting”, which leaves the strongest alcohol content behind, the beer will sell for somewhere around $52 per bottle (yes, per bottle). Sales to the US are only available via the company’s website, so you won’t be able to pick up a bottle locally, no matter how broad the selection might be at your preferred supplier.

Brewmeister isn’t the first Scottish brewery to create a beer that will take you from 0-drunk in a split second. BrewDog made international headlines with their super strong brew served in a dead animal (stoats and squirrels). Called the “End of History”, this brew helped jumpstart a worldwide ultra-strong beer trend and Brewmeister might just do the same thing.

Dethroned Sam Adams Still Packs a Punch

Of course, we can’t forget the king of all craft breweries in the US – Sam Adams regularly puts out a super strong brew called Utopia (actually a range of brews, released every other year). This year marks the 10th anniversary of the brew, and Sam Adams has rolled out their selection a year earlier than normal to mark the occasion. 

Coming in at 29% alcohol, it falls well behind Armageddon in terms of alcohol content, but it costs quite a bit more per bottle. That doesn’t mean it won’t be incredibly popular thought (and the fact that it’s available in the US is a definite plus). If you want one of these limited edition brews, you’ll have to act very fast (and be supremely lucky to boot). Sam Adams is only releasing fewer than 15,000 bottles, each of which has a suggested retail price of $190. 

New Belgium Is In on the Act

New Belgium’s Lips of Faith beer offerings have been praised across the country, and they’re coming out with a new high-octane pairing late in 2012 as well. Working with Brewery Vivant (out of Michigan), the two options are Biere de Garde and Imperial Coffee Chocolate Stout. The former is available with 9% alcohol, and the stout weighs in at 10%, both of which are pretty high (though nothing in the range of the Utopias or Armageddon).

Why the New Focus on High-Octane Brews?

With session beers gaining so much popularity lately, it’s understandable that the reasoning behind new strong brews is a bit cloudy. Actually, it’s likely part of a trend that will be seen in the world of brewing for some time to come. As session beers predominate, those looking for something stronger will gravitate towards options like those listed above. As they tire of the massive alcohol content brews, the popularity of session beers will rise once more. 

One thing that beer lovers can really look forward to today is that both high-alcohol and low-alcohol varieties will be widely available from a broad range of breweries, including both big beer companies and craft brewers. Variety is what the beer world really needs – a breaking away from the big beer-controlled world of yesteryear, and that’s exactly what’s happening.

Whether you prefer world-endingly strong brews, ultra-reserve offerings or something that packs a decent punch with a lot of flavor and character, there are more options out there than you might think. 

Posted on December 1, 2012 and filed under The Business of Beer, 2012.