Vince Capano is a two time winner of the prestigious Quill and Tankard writing award for humor from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
Defending "Big" Beers
If you were a child of the 1940s it’s entirely possible that you grew up thinking that the United States had a permanent President in Franklin Roosevelt. Winning four elections can do that. If you had baby teeth in the early 1950s you likely believed Hopalong Cassidy was FDR’s heir apparent. After all, Hoppy’s picture was on everything from lunch boxes to bread wrappers to underwear. And for years countless people knew beyond a doubt that when October arrived the temperature would dip, leaves would fall, and the Yankees would win the Pennant.
In those simpler days even beer drinker had rock solid truisms - good beers were lagers and Coors was the finest beer ever made. Coors was the stuff of legend; a mystical rare treat not allegedly available outside Colorado unless of course you knew someone who knew someone whose friend had a secretly smuggled some bottles out in his car trunk. That Coors crime wave just made it taste so much better.
Today, in the same spirit of ignorant bliss, there are legions of new beer drinkers who believe craft breweries have always existed and good beer was never farther away than a short walk to the local pub or supermarket. This group has never, ever, known a time without craft beer and a wide selection of it at that. From their 21st birthday, and likely earlier, the likes of Sam Adams, Anchor, or Sierra Nevada beckoned and beguiled them from tap handles and store coolers everywhere. If they ever drank adjunct laden swill it was only by choice or ignorance. That is a heritage to marvel at.
Early quality beers with a large distribution like New Castle Brown, Pete’s Wicked, and Anchor Liberty were among the first to see skyrocketing sales. A multitude of their brethren quickly joined the parade. They were obviously different but they did have one thing in common – an alcohol by volume (ABV) that was generally less than 6%. We may yawn at that ABV today but for some it was and is an outrageously high number; after all that’s a shocking 20% higher than King Bud himself. I guess it shows that things are often judged in perspective – for example, think how tall you’d look if you took up residence in Munchkin Country, Land of Oz or got cast in the sequel to the Terror of Tiny Town, the consensus best all-midget musical western ever made.
Eventually a quite different group of beers hit the marketplace. What these beers had in common was an ABV suitable for Andre The Giant; they were all at least 7.5% and often reached into double digit territory. They were Doubles, Tripels, Quads, Imperials, Double Imperials, Imperial-Imperial-Imperials, and of course the incredibly powerful Penta which is five times stronger than any style made, brewed exclusively with water from the Penta River. Okay, I made that one up – but only the part about the beer not the river. The point is that stronger, more complex brews began to find favor with beer geeks everywhere. Almost.
Full disclosure requires me to state I’m one of those aforementioned geeks. In fact the most recent big beer I enjoyed instantly got penciled in “The Adventures in Beerland Hall of Fame” along with brews like KBS, Pliny, Bourbon County Stout, and Heady Hopper. The beer is Stone Farking Wheaton WOOstout (not a typo, that’s its name). It weighs in at 13% ABV. It’s big but the alcohol is very well hidden. In this near perfect brew, tasting the alcohol is not unlike finding a pin in a haystack. I know it’s supposed to be needle but having lost both I can certify they are equally difficult to find. Now that I think of it, finding the haystack was just about impossible too. Starbucks are easy, wireless phone stores are easy, pizza joints are easy, haystacks are hard.
The WOOstout is an Imperial Stout brewed with pecans, wheat and rye and partially aged in bourbon barrels. It was accompanied on my local pub’s beer menu by Stone Imperial Russian Stout at 10.5% ABV, Stone Espresso Imperial Russian Stout at 11%, Stone Old Guardian Oak-Smoked Barleywine at 12%, Stone Old Guardian at 11.2%, and as a nod for the wimps, Stone Ruination IPA at 7.7%. That lineup of seriously big beers, all on tap by the way, brought in an equally large big beer savvy crowd. They reminded me of the group a month earlier at this very same bar that wildly applauded my creation of the World’s Strongest Black and Tan. Several patrons even came over to take pictures of my glass with its perfect separation of half Dogfish Head World Wide Stout (18% ABV) and half Dogfish 120 Minute IPA (19% ABV). It was a memorable moment indeed. In fact, it was nearly as memorable as the time I had my first glass of said Dogfish 120 years ago. An older beer veteran sitting next to me at the bar asked how I liked it. I slowly shook my head side to side and mumbled about it being too strong. He leaned in and quietly said, “you’ll love it after a second one”. He was right and I haven’t looked back or down on big beers since.
Of course there are more than a few naysayers to high ABV beers out there including my good friend and BeerNexus colleague Dan Hodge. Dan favors beers under a 5 % cap though if truth be told, he’ll drink any beer under a cap, usually without severe protest. It seems his main argument is that lower ABV brews, a/k/a session beers, are much more “drinkable” as opposed to, say, a rock which scores low on the drinkable scale. A session beer, according to Dan, allows the drinker to have several in a two or three-hour period without reaching inappropriate levels of intoxication. As such, the drinker’s pub time is extended so he gets to enjoy more beer and more of the place’s camaraderie.
As student of beer history, Dan also points out that session beers were once mainstays in Britain, where the active pub-going lifestyle was built long ago on lighter beers. There, a person would head to his local and be able to drink pint after pint after pint of beer with less alcohol making for, in Dan’s words, “ a perfect evening of conversation with friends while being able to feel good in the morning”.
Decent points but there are more to consider. When people drink bigger beers they tend to talk about beer. To me, that fun. It’s something you want to share. It’s something that builds instant empathy with a fellow drinker. Big beers magically make friends out of strangers. You just don’t see that happening when people are knocking down a few glasses of water.
As for flavor, let’s be honest. No lighter brew can bring out the depth, variety, and nuisances of flavor found in their higher ABV brothers. Did you ever notice that when people drink a session beer they often compliment it by first saying “this really has a lot of taste” but then inevitably add ”for such a low alcohol beer.” That’s like Mayor Dave Bing saying “aside from the bankruptcy, Detroit is doing great”. It also reminds me of Doug, a golfing buddy, who after a round would say with blissful glee, “we finished in less than 4 hours!” Ah, if it was that much fun why would you want it to end sooner rather than later?
I’ll admit that some strong beers are overwhelmed by esters and alcohol, but the good ones really aren’t. And when those big guys are good they’re really good. Open a Port Brewing Santa’s Little Helper (10% ABV) for tastes of dark chocolate, roasted malt, pine, caramel, toast, brown sugar, coffee, and roasted nuts. Sip on a St. Bernardus ABT 12 (10% ABV) and get layers of flavors under layers of flavors like pecans, cashews, cherries, plums, and prunes. Drink a Firestone Walker Double Jack (9.5%) and savor the likes of cantaloupe, honeydew, and citrus fruits in a Bavarian soft pretzel dough flavored background. I think you see my point. Session beers simply do not and cannot deliver what their big brothers do. If you’re about full bodied tastes you’ll be about big beers.
Needless to say, any responsible individual drinking a higher ABV brew will take longer than the person downing a session one. And therein lays the answer to Dan's argument that you can have more session beers without feeling its effects. If in the 40 minutes or so it takes me to drink a glass of Founders Dirty Bastard (8.5%) you have two pints of Founders All-Day IPA (4.7%) there isn’t much of a difference in our alcohol induced happiness level, erudite conversation, or the proper functioning of our beer goggles. It’s time for the session beer lovers to lighten up (not literally I hope) and embrace all beers. It’s not about ABV, it’s about the world’s greatest drink in all its forms.
As Dan and I continued our discussion I noticed Leo, the bar’s resident oenophile and guru of all things fermented shaking his head side to side at us. Then, with a bemused look, he pointed at his nearly empty bottle of wine and simply said “fourteen percent; keep things in perspective gentlemen.”
I said that ten paragraphs ago but coming from Leo it somehow seemed to make more sense.