Friday night, someone tapped a keg of Lagunitas. Saturday morning, the sunlight offended my eyes. Saturday afternoon I learned that we’d been drinking Brown Shugga,’ a floral, fruity, hoppy bitter brew with a 9.7 percent ABV and a woefully apt tagline —“dangerously slammable.”
ABV is “alcohol by volume.” A Coors Light has an ABV of 4.2, and a regular Laguitas IPA—the beer I’d thought I was drinking on Friday night—weighs in at 6.2. So, the already hedonistic four beers I had may as well have been a whalloping six.
My friend Melissa Test, brewer at Ten Torr Distilling and Brewing, told me that it wasn’t just the quantity of alcohol that hit me. It was also the quality. When making a high-alcohol beer, she said, “you’re pushing the yeast to their highest capacity.” Byproducts include not just the ethanol alcohol that’s common to all beers, but also heavy alcohols like methanol and propanol, which worsen a hangover.
Now that I knew first-hand about the drawback, I was curious about strong beers’ appeal. It turns out that craft brewers like making them—so much, in fact, that there’s a festival to highlight their best efforts.
It started when Under The Rose owner Jesse Kleinedler noticed that the snowy backgrounds in photos of the craft brewers’ winter festival in Michigan, her home state, made it look like a lot of fun.
Her vision of dominating Instagram with pictures of Renoites imbibing in a snowy wonderland didn’t quite come to pass, though. The day of the first festival, it was 70 degrees and sunny.
As it turns out, unseasonable warmth works just fine for Imbib’s Jason Green. It actually makes his beer taste better.
“I would say, anything with a higher alcohol content it’s better to sip and enjoy, to actually let ’em warm up in your glass,” he said. “Once you get into 50 degrees, the flavors open up. … You get to see the whole realm of the beer as it warms up in your hand. New flavors keep developing.”
That’s one big reason behind strong beers. A high “grain bill”—a longer ingredient list—affords more complex flavors.
Breweries are expected to each bring three or four varieties to the festival. So, while highlights will include beers as strong as Tonopah Brewing Company’s chocolatey-tasting M&M Imperial Stout with an 11 percent ABV, drinkers who fear that a Saturday afternoon strong-beer session might be a one-way ticket to a Sunday-morning head-throb session can rest assured that several brewers will be showing off brews in the one-digit ABV range as well. Greg Hinge from Brew Brothers in the Eldorado is thinking of bringing his English IPA—ABV 6.5—made with East Kent Golding hops that yield a flavor that’s more earthy than that of citrusy, floral West Coast IPAs. And Rich Weathers, who brews at both Tonopah Brewing Co. and Virginia City Brewery & Taphouse, is fixing to pour his WTF—“What the Freddy?”—an 8-percent-ABV raspberry IPA that’s aged in chardonnay barrels.
Now that I know more about strong beers, I’m debating—should I indulge in a whole afternoon’s worth of them?
Green had some advice for me: “Try to drink the same amount of water you just had in beer.” And Kleinedler offered an even safer card to play—she sells a discounted festival ticket that includes a food-truck meal and all-you-can drink coffee, hot chocolate and Italian sodas. She calls it the “designated driver.” I call it the “hangover preventer.”