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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Thursday, 26 November 2009

Brew Dog creates world's strongest beer - can we talk about the beer?

Slag 'em or praise 'em, you just can't stop talking about 'em.

But it's nice to be able to talk about Brew Dog for the right reasons again. Today, the brewery announces the launch of Tactical Nuclear Penguin - at 32%, the strongest beer on the planet, beating previous record holder Sam Adams Utopias by 7%.

The boys - slightly chastened by the whole Portman farrago a few weeks ago - assure me that this launch is all about the beer. Doubtless there will be headlines about how irresponsible it is to brew a beer at this strength, and the whole presentation of the launch will be edgy and controversial (without explicitly baiting the Portman Group, thankfully)because that's who they are - that is the Brew Dog brand.

But the press release proves Brew Dog have learned that you can do edgy and at the same time still promote a responsible drinking message. I love this:
Beer has a terrible reputation in Britain, it’s ignorant to assume that a beer can’t be enjoyed responsibly like a nice dram or a glass of fine wine. A beer like Tactical Nuclear Penguin should be enjoyed in spirit sized measures. It pairs fantastically with vanilla bean white chocolate it really brings out the complexity of the beer and complements the powerful, smoky and cocoa flavours.
A warning on the label states:
This is an extremely strong beer, it should be enjoyed in small servings and with an air of aristocratic nonchalance. In exactly the same manner that you would enjoy a fine whisky, a Frank Zappa album or a visit from a friendly yet anxious ghost.

So let's talk about the beer. TNP is an Imperial Stout that has been matured in wooden casks for eighteen months. It has then been frozen to minus twenty degrees at the local ice cream factory in Fraserburgh (not much demand for ice cream up there I'd have thought, but I guess the ambient temperature makes it much easier to produce). By freezing the beer to concentrate it this way, they get the alcoholic strength.

This could make for an incredibly harsh and fiery taste. I've yet to taste the beer myself, but Brew Dog claim that because of the 18 months in cask, there's a very rich, smooth, mellow and complex flavour.

In beer circles the debate will be as to whether you can still really call this a beer at all, given that (apologies if my science isn't quite right here) the freezing technique is effectively doing the same thing as distillation. Is this cheating?

I once attended a breakfast hosted by Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams, father of the awesome Utopias. I asked him a similar question - is this still beer? - and was inspired by his answer. He said something along the lines of beer has been around for thousands of years. Over that time it has evolved continually, and the pace of evolution has picked up considerably in the last couple of centuries. "How arrogant would we have to be to say that in this time, our time, we've done everything with beer that can be done? That we've perfected beer?" he asked me.

This is why when I love Brew Dog, I really do love them. It's easy - and not always inaccurate - to accuse them of arrogance. But not when they do something like this. It's far more arrogant to say 'we can't possibly improve on our beer' than it is to never stop trying to do precisely that. In my marketing role, I often hear brewers talk about something like a slightly different bottle size and refer to it as 'innovation'. Brew Dog are genuine innovators on a global stage, redefining what beer can actually be.

I hope to taste some soon. If it tastes like fiery alcoholic gut rot, then that's what I'll say. But I hope - and suspect - that it's going to taste sublime.


18 comments:

Barry M said...

Don't want to be a pedant, but the guys mention a German brewery, Schorschbräu, as being the previous record holder at 31%.

Would love to try the Penguin (and the Utopia!), but there's no way I can justify the price. I might have to get some of the No. 2 in the world instead :)

Laurent Mousson said...

Well, no, the old Eisbock trick is not similar to distillation...

In distillation, you extract the alcohol to keep just that, and all the solids are left behind, in what's discarded.

The point in freezing beer is to remove water, which is discarded, and keep a concentrated beer that contains all the alcohol and *all the solids* (protein, dextrins, malt colour, hop resins, fiber etc.)

Therefore tactical Nuclear Penguin, being a beverage with all the malt and hop solids still on board on top of the alcohol, and increased in the same proportions as alcohol, is abeer, not a spirit. QED.

The Beer Nut said...

In this country any beverage over 22% ABV is a spirit, regardless of how it's made.

I think it's similar in the UK:
"any fermented liquor which is of a strength exceeding 40 of proof, not being imported wine delivered for home use in that state on which the appropriate duty has been duly paid, shall be deemed to be spirits."
-- Alcoholic Liquor Duties Act 1979

The Beer Nut said...

Ooops, no, I'm wrong. Repealed by the 2006 Finance Act as pointless. Fair enough.

StringersBeer said...

And of course there was theHair of the Dog frozen barley wine, "Dave" at 29%.

So this would be incremental rather than revolutionary.

Sid Boggle said...

I assume it's worth pointing out that no English brewery could do this without falling foul of HMRC. A law protecting Scotland's whisky industry gives BrewDog a unique edge. Fullers fell foul of it until they liquored down their barrel-aged ales to an ABV below their strongest beer (Golden Pride) which means Brewers Reserve will likely never exceed 7.2% without some Act of Parliament.

As a Scottish brewer, I assume BD can brew beers to any ABV they want without any excise intervention.

Still, I tend to agree with Pete - let the beer do the talking...

Barry M said...

Just as a follow on to my previous comment, I found out this afternoon that the previous holders, Schorschbräu, have a 39.44% beer (Eisbock) ready to go very soon, and they gave me the lab report to prove it :)

So, is that revolutionary? It's a pity the small breweries that do these kind of things get overshadowed by the big voices, or the ones with bigger PR.

The Beer Nut said...

Sid, which law is that?

zythophile said...

Sid's right: don't try this one at home, it's illegal (in England) to freeze beer and then remove the water-ice to increase the alcohol level.

Woolpack Dave said...

Sid, I'm not sure where you get your information on HMRC. In their beer notice 226 para 30.3 they give a table for calculating beer strength up to 13.6%. I'm not aware of the law you state.

Sid Boggle said...

The relevant bit, as I understand it, is the use of spirit casks to age the beer. HMRC regards such activity as distilling if it's carried out in England, and it prevented Fullers from launching their own barrel-aged beers until they agreed to sell it at a slightly lower ABV than their strongest beer. I tried some pilot batches at the brewery a few years ago, which were around 10%.

This is a consequence of an old law which protects the Scottish whisky distillers.

It seems odd to describe a 10% imperial stout as a base beer, but since BD have aged it in Islay casks before freezing, they've undertaken a distilling activity which would cause an English brewer problems...

Laurent Mousson said...

Quote from :
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/north_east/8380412.stm

'However Jack Law, of Alcohol Focus Scotland, described it was a "cynical marketing ploy" and said: "We want to know why a brewer would produce a beer almost as strong as whisky."'

Why ? WELL, BECAUSE THEY CAN !!

And before that worn-out binge drinking kite is flown again : that one clocks in at thirty quid a 33cl bottle, and is only ever going to be sold in a handful of outlets, unlike whisky, some of which is a lot cheaper anyway...

Pete said...

Well, I screwed up good and proper on my facts here: of course, when you think about it, me saying the freezing method was like distillation is so wrong - it's the opposite of distillation, in a way.

And I simply never knew about Schorschbräu Schorschbock. I wish I had heard of it now.

Laurent Mousson said...

Well, I tried the 16% Schorschbock (BTW, of course Schorsch = George with a jokey spelling... yes, zee Tschermans know how to joke too), and it has all the trappings of a superstrength Doppelbock , that is sticky, sweet, syrupy, heavy toffee-and-vanilla malt, and an IMHO nastily agressive, clinging, almost metallic bitterness. I haven't come across the 31% version yet, but I'm not sure I'd be that keen...

Thing is, with the 18%+ Tokyo*, BrewDog did manage already to come up with something that was actually surprisingly drinkable, so indeed, wait and see...

(BTW, I'm not too keen on the SamAdams Utopias either. Alcohol is overwhelmingly apparent, and it lags behind Baladin's Xyauyu - which has just half the alcohol contents - in terms of richness, depth and complexity...)

Barry M said...

Who would have thought! :D

I'll be ordering the 16% one soon. The 31% seems to be hard to get, but it seems beyond the price I'm willing to pay for a beer. From what I've read about it, it does sound like it's harsh.

I haven't opened any of my Tokyo*s yet, but am looking forward to it! Maybe this weekend...

Sid Boggle said...

I shared a bottle with some friends a month ago. I'd chilled it down, which masked some of the complexity, but once it warmed up, it was excellent.

At no point did the alcohol mask or interfere with the flavour, the mouthfeel was luxurious, and the beer had a long warming finish.

BLTP said...

the problem with "Utopia" when I tasted it was it fell between stools not having the qualities I enjoy in beer but not quite as good a good sherry or spirit. It was interesting and complex but I'm not sure there are many occasions when you choose it first to drink.

Stono said...

I cant help but think on a day when ought to have been celebrating an outbreak of common sense in the Scottish Parliament for once, that an announcement that the "the worlds strongest beer" is about to hit the market has got very little to do with the actual beer, and everything to do with the MSM controversy it would generate, which is Brew Dog to a tee