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Burrus at the Bar: High-Octane Beer Gets the Wine Treatment

Published on: July 22nd, 2009

Big beer. It’s a creeper trend that has, in the past year or so, gone ballistic as evidenced by the proliferation of high-alcohol, massively hopped special brews often sporting familiar names with “imperial” bolted on the front. Avery’s Maharaja Imperial India Pale Ale is a good example.

By any mortal measure, India pale ale was long the flagship style for brewers intent on piling on the hops at every turn of the brewing process. Big hop flavor, aroma and, especially, bitterness was a key element of the style and more was better.

But as craft brewing moved into the new millennium, the usual styles and their parameters were becoming passé. Looking to kick up the torque and horsepower of its production beers, Avery began making limited batches of beers of which The Maharaja (which numbers it batches; currently at number 10) is one of three in the Dictator series. The result induces a full-body pucker from hopping rates that don’t just cleanse the palate, they sandblast one’s taste buds. Sure, there’s a heap of malt in there to provide “balance” and the attendant alcohol that malt produces. But as IPAs go, this one goes to 11.

“The American palate has grown up to where they want even more flavor,” said Todd Thibault, marketing director of Breckenridge Brewery in Denver. “It’s funny the complexity that we can build into these beers. Avalanche is a nice, comfortable beer. But when you want to do it up big, you head to these small batch beers.”

These pumped-up beers typically have more alcohol—the Maharaja packs nearly 10.7 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Some, like Avery’s Mephistopheles’ Stout, can clock in at a hellish 15 percent ABV.

Curiously, the high hopping rates and alcohol content lend these small batch behemoths to being put down, literally.

“Hog Heaven (9.2 percent ABV) is insanely hoppy,” says C.V. Howe, marketing specialist for Avery. “I say drink them fresh. But there are a lot of people out there that say Hog Heaven is at its best after two or three years. You start to get some sweeter, sherry-like flavors. Time allows the malt sweetness to come through and there are other reactions that happen that compliment those flavors.”

So as much as brewers like to tout their beverages as being less high-brow and more complex than wine, don’t be surprised if you start seeing aged vintages of high-octane ales being sold at better liquor stores for a premium.

Yes, They Can
Oskar Blues Brewery out of Lyons was the pioneer of canning; its flagship Dale’s Pale Ale—followed by Old Chub, Gordon, Ten Fidy and this spring, Momma’s Little Yella Pils—is only available in cans.

It turns out that putting premium, craft-brewed beer in cans was smart. Oskar Blues saw its beer production increase by 64 percent in 2008 and it is on a pace to keep the six-year growth spurt going.

Not blind to such success, local craft brewers Wynkoop Brewing Co. and Breckenridge Brewery, both of Denver, will join New Belgium Brewing of Fort Collins in the canning line later this summer. The new Boulder upstart brewery, Upslope, is canning too. New Belgium started putting its Fat Tire ale in cans last summer and included its Sunshine Wheat in the lineup this year.

Look for Wynkoop’s Railyard Ale for sale in cans from its downtown brewpub and, if they can get the canning line hopping, at Denver liquor store giants Argonaut and Applejack.

Breckenridge, too, will join the can gang with its Avalanche Ale. Their initial targets are concert and sports venues and golf courses—places where glass is prohibited—and then branch out to local liquor stores.

Unlike the days of old, cans today have special liners and don’t impart that metallic taste and feel to beer. They also are impervious to light (bad for beer), are easy to recycle, are the only containers allowed in our National Parks and have a smaller carbon footprint than glass.

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