Beer, Wine & Spirits

Craft beers get heavy ... on the alcohol

Beers with high alcoholic content, L-R: Samuel Adams Thirteenth Hour, The Lost Abbey Inferno Ale, Samuel Adams Tetravis, and Samuel Adams American Kriek.
Source: Samuel Adams | Lost Abbey

American's taste for beer has historically leaned to the lighter side, with lagers taking over the country in the 19th century in a trend that has continued to the even lighter American staples such as Budweiser and Pabst Blue Ribbon that hold a majority of the market to this day.

But craft beer, whose sales grew 22 percent to $19.6 billion in 2014 and continued a four-year streak of double digit growth, is driving a sea change in American palates with heavier doses of alcohol.

"As craft beer was growing, it seemed that ABV (alcohol by volume) grew with it," said Justin Dolezal, beer buyer for Buzz Wine Beer Shop in downtown Los Angeles.

Consumer research group Mintel found that the amount of beers released with more than 6.5 percent alcohol by volume increased by 319 percent in North America from 2011 to 2014, with 46 percent of new beer releases falling into this category. The average alcohol content of craft beer is 5.9 percent A.B.V.

And the real heavyweights, beers with over 8 percent ABV, also saw a noticeable uptick in 2013 and 2014. Across the globe, those beers made up 12.9 and 11.7 percent of new releases during each of those years, respectively, after only making up 7.4 percent of new releases in 2012 and 6.2 percent in 2011.

"Drinkers today have more sophisticated palates than drinkers generally did years ago and they're constantly looking to explore unique, high-quality beers," said Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co., the entity behind Samuel Adams.

And more breweries are rushing to compete by putting out their own high-alcohol craft beers, for which they can charge a premium price, nearly as much for 750 milliliter bottle as they charge for a six-pack of regular craft beer. It doesn't hurt, too, that the heavier beers have a longer shelf life.

Samuel Adams Utopias
Source: Samuel Adams

Take, for example craft breweries such as Lost Abbey and Evil Twin Brewing Co. They have been emboldened by what they see as a shifting American palate, and are releasing more and more of the in-vogue, high-alcohol content beers like double and triple IPAs, export stouts, Belgian-style beers and imperial ales, that have become popular with the growing craft beer movement.

Lost Abbey, a division of Port Brewing Co. based in San Marcos, Calif., makes predominately barrel-aged beers that clock in around 9 percent ABV and up. It has grown at an average of 10-15 percent in sales since opening in 2006, said head brewer Tomme Arthur. Evil Twin Brewing, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., makes a healthy roster of beers in a similar range, and its sales have doubled every year since it opened in 2010.

Large craft companies such as Boston Brewing and Anchor Brewing are even joining the move, rolling out new lines of stronger beers in 2014-15.

Since Koch's company released Samuel Adams Triple Bock (17.5 percent ABV) in 1994, the company has expanded its line of Extreme Beers to include the upwards of 20 percent ABV Utopia series and the more recent, Belgian-inspired Barrel Room collection (the Thirteenth Hour stout clocks in at 9 percent ABV). This year Samuel Adams rolled out Rebel Rouser, a double IPA that clocks in at 8.4 percent ABV, though it was partnered with a session-style cousin, Rebel Session IPA. (4.5 percent), for its release.

Koch, like Lost Abbey's Tomme Arthur, believes that American beer drinkers are moving to appreciate craft beer like wine, drinking it more appreciatively and reservedly rather than with consistent and mechanical elbow rotations spanning an arc from counter to lips. Arthur noted that it is now common for people to bring a bottle of beer as a gift to a friendly dinner or wedding, and Koch said he believed more and more consumers are learning to appreciate the beverage with food.

Anchor Brewing owners Keith Gregor (L), Tony Foglio (C) and Fritz Maytag (R).
How Anchor Brewing changed the beer business

Another factor causing the shift was the establishment and proliferation of the darling style of the craft beer movement, the American IPA, which has brought a taste for hops to America that has only increased with time. American IPAs, coincidentally, bear higher alcohol percentages usually between 6 and 7 percent. Double and Triple IPAs, which were invented to jack up hop contents to match consumers' increasing taste for the bittering addition, have even higher alcohol content.

"I think that with these higher-hop IPAs, alcohol just seems to go hand in hand with public demand," said Mark Carpenter, Anchor Brewing Co.'s brewmaster.

Anchor Brewing Co. became America's first craft brewery when Fritz Maytag acquired the facility in 1969, and has since produced the first modern IPAs, barleywines and porters brewed on American soil. Despite its age, the brewery is still proving that it is at the forefront of the brewing game.

This year, Anchor began releasing its Argonaut series, a limited line of four-pack beers in styles that tend towards high-alcohol content. So far, the line has consisted of a foreign export stout, Flying Cloud, at 7.4 percent, and a double IPA, Double Liberty, at 8.2 percent.

"Generally speaking, we don't do high-alcohol beers," said Carpenter, who has been with the brewery since 1971. Anchor's classic beers include Anchor Steam, a California common lager, and Liberty Pale Ale, both of which clock in at around 6 percent ABV.

In October, Anchor will release the third iteration of the Argonaut collection, a blended and barrel-aged American strong ale-style beer.

"We're keeping up with the times," Carpenter said.

But not everyone chocks the change to more sophisticated palates:

"There will be some people that will just look at the beer list and look for ABV," said Bob Grande, who tends bar at the Wurstkuche beer garden in Los Angeles' Arts District.

Grande said that he'll often try to point those sort of drinkers away from the 12 percent Aventinus Eisbock on Wurstkuche's menu, instead directing them toward a more approachable La Trappe Quadrupel (10.5 percent ABV), which also comes in a smaller serving size than the Aventinus.

"I know what'll end up happening if they get the Eisbock," he said with a sigh.

The difference between those two archetypal high-ABV drinkers, according to Grande and the other beer experts I interviewed, is the approach: Grande and Dolezal from Buzz both said that people who enjoy those beers for taste are often interested in styles of beer in which high alcohol content is a coincidence. They will also drink more reservedly, as Arthur and Koch noted in their likening of craft beer's evolution towards wine.

"We always feel that the notion, from the consumer basis, that a lower-alcohol beer should make you want the next one … at the higher strengths, that rarely is the same," said Arthur. "It's about the flow, appreciative, contemplative kind of drinking, really appreciating the flavor and spending time with it."

"We don't sense that most people buy them for having three beers in a row. They're going to have half the bottle, splitting it with a friend," he continued.

Brewers, too, are pushing the change. Arthur said that higher alcohol contents allow him more flexibility in his brewery's barrel-aging process due to the sturdiness it gives the beer, and he and other brewers noted that high alcohol volume tends to embolden flavors and change the feel of the mouth.

Brewery worker examining beer in beaker. Craft breweries continue to grow.
Craft beer growth posts solid numbers ... again

The ability of high-ABV beers to keep also helps offset the costs of the smaller quantities in which they are produced and sold, a facet that owes itself to the difficulty of making good high-ABV beers and the smaller amounts in which they are typically consumed.

But is the session beer dying? Not quite yet, it seems.

"It's true that imperial lagers and such are turning popular, for a brewer it's fun to take a traditional style and make it your own," said Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, owner of Evil Twin Brewing.

The higher alcohol ceiling, he continued, allows brewers to craft more nuance into their beers. Evil Twin's signature Mosaic Single Hop Imperial India Pale American Wheat Lager (try saying that after drinking two of them), for instance, has nuances of fruit and citrus that one wouldn't find in a traditional lager. While those typically clock in at around 4 or 5 percent ABV, the MSHIIPAW sits at 8 percent.

"The trend right now is actually to turn traditional styles around. You make beers with normally low ABVs higher, and you make bigger beers smaller, like session IPAs," said Jarnit-Bjergsø.

Evil Twin's Citra Sunshine Slacker, a citrus-forward IPA of only 4.5 percent ABV, is an example of the other side of Jarnit-Bjergsø's trend description. One Beer Advocate reviewer described it as going "easily down the throat" with "subtle grapefruit notes all the way to the bottom."

Anchor's Carpenter, who has watched American craft beer evolve since its beginnings, said the trending of styles with higher and lower alcohol contents works much like a tide.

"At some point it might start back the other way," Carpenter said.