Most beers consumed in the U.S. hover between four and 10 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). These are the brews downed by the round or six pack at happy hours and tailgate parties across the country every day. But there is a select and rarefied list of beers that break such shackles of conformity and aim their potency high into territory normally reserved for whiskey, vodka and rum, raising the question: at 80 proof, is it really beer anymore? And furthermore, is anyone capable of caring once they've drunk a bottle?
Part of a recent explosion of extreme beers, high-gravity brews are suds of a different sort. The name comes from the liquid's density in comparison to water – the higher the gravity, the more alcohol that can form. And because they range anywhere from approximately 14 percent to 40 percent ABV, there is a huge range of flavors and textures in this category. Many are syrupy, with huge amounts of nutty and toasty malt stemming from the quantities of that dried extract necessary to kick the alcohol content into the “dear God I can't feel my hands” range. The high proof ratings tend to make them ‘hotter’ than typical beers, exchanging refreshing and crisp for unique flavors that put each of them in a category of its own.
But there is one unifying factor – every single one of them packs a punch that’s a heck of a lot harder than Bud can deliver. Here are a few to keep an eye out for, you may want to duck:
Dogfish Head Brewery Olde School: A barley wine style ale, which has only a mild hops bitterness with fruit dominating the flavors, this 15 percent ABV ale is an excellent introduction to the breed. A pale glowing orange in color, it's rich and heavy with just a touch of bitterness and huge berry flavors. So much so that it's better drank from a snifter than a bottle. It's the root beer of beers, with sugar and fruits wafting out of the glass, and a strange medicinal aftertaste that makes it an acquired taste for many.
Avery Mephistopheles Stout: As black-hearted as its namesake, this 15.1 percent ABV stout pours a deep coal-black and offers a creamy mocha head which disappears quickly due to weak carbonation. The tastiest beer in this lineup, a chewy mouthful reeks of toffee, molasses, and a tinge of vanilla ringed with burnt coffee and the sweet heat of the alcohol. Like most stouts, it's a meal in a glass.
Mikkeler Black: The brewery recommends aging this huge stout for a few years to take the edge off, and it's not a bad idea. Weighing in at 17.5 percent ABV, there's virtually no carbonation to lighten the creamy texture brought on by the champagne yeast used in the brewing process. Charred malt, chocolate and coffee dominate every sip, but there's nuance here too – the toffee and cherry flavors surprisingly not burned away by the high alcohol content. It’s perfect for sipping a pint slowly over the course of a very long night, but don't blame anyone but yourself for what gets posted on Facebook if any more than that is consumed.
BrewDog Tactical Nuclear Penguin: Bizarrely named, this Imperial Stout from Scotland was, for a short time in 2009, the strongest beer ever brewed, and was only recently dethroned by Schorschbrau, a German brewery that has unleashed a 40 percent ABV beer on the world. But at 32 percent ABV, Tactical Nuclear Penguin is one heck of an accomplishment. The brewery claims it's a beer for the dedicated, and they're so very right. A deep chocolate brown in the whiskey tumbler that should be its home, the light carbonation doesn't hide the smoke, tobacco, nutty malt and cola flavors that rule this beer. The heat of the alcohol masks a bit of toffee and chocolate as well. But make no mistake, the thick, almost viscous liquid is brutal in its approach. This nuke takes no prisoners and should be enjoyed sparingly. It's still technically beer, but in the same way that Heidi Montag is still technically a human.