Brew Dog's Martin Dickie, left, and James Watt with 'Sink the… (Duncan Brown )
When Scottish brewers Martin Dickie and James Watt came up with the cheeky idea to make a beer as potent as whiskey, they couldn't wait to share it with the world.
They didn't know they would trigger an arms race.
But that's what ensued when their brewery, BrewDog, released the first limited-edition bottles of "Tactical Nuclear Penguin," a stout that measures 32% alcohol and was quickly crowned "strongest beer in the world" — for less than a month.
Then the buildup began.
A small German brewer, Schorschbräu, announced online in December that it had topped the Scots with a 40% beer to recapture the title.
Now, BrewDog has unveiled a 41% "quadruple India Pale Ale" called Sink the Bismarck and is marketing it with a viral video campaign that spoofs the old European rivalries. The one-upmanship has raised ire in the British media and irked some beer fans who see it as a cheap publicity stunt.
Watt, BrewDog's chief executive, insists they had been developing the stronger beer for six months. "You can't just magic up a 41% beer in two weeks," he says.
Still, the international rivalry has put a spotlight on a fascinating, though fringe, sector of the beer industry: brewers who push beer to its alcoholic limits. BrewDog is one of a handful of breweries worldwide that have experimented with techniques to enrich their beers to surpass wine and even some spirits in alcohol content.
Others that have actively competed for the strongest beer title include Dogfish Head in Delaware and the Boston Beer Co., whose Utopia is also one of the most expensive beers, at more than $150 retail.
Most mass-produced American beers, from Budweiser to Samuel Adams Boston Lager, rarely top 5% alcohol by volume (ABV). A typical Belgian ale, by contrast, runs closer to 8% or 9%, which can be accomplished using traditional brewing techniques. Even barleywine-style beers stick in the vicinity of 11%, well shy of many Chardonnays.
So, if these extreme concoctions are so rare Joe Six-Pack will never taste them, what's all the fuss?
Experimentation plays a key role in the beer industry, says Greg Koch, CEO of Escondido's Stone Brewing Co., one of the nation's largest craft beer producers.
"It's definitely an attention-grabber," Koch says about the high alcohol level. "But it demonstrates what's possible in the world of beer. We like anything that shows people the diversity in beer."
It takes extreme measures — and temperatures — to brew a beer as strong as liquor.
To make Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Watt and head brewer Dickie started with a 10% imperial stout. The men lugged plastic barrels of the stout to a local ice cream factory in their hometown of Fraserburgh, where they froze the containers over several days to reach minus 20 degrees Celsius. As ice chips formed, they tossed them out, leaving a condensed and higher-alcohol beer.
The process was similar for creating Sink the Bismarck, except Watt and Dickie started with a much lighter beer so even more water could be removed, and froze it four times while adding hops. The result is a staunchly herbal elixir that's so strong it must be sipped.
Both beers sold out in weeks, so the 2-year-old brewery has scrambled to make more. The next editions, Watt says, will come with a stopper top so the beer can be drunk in multiple sittings like a fine Scotch.
If this all sounds extreme, so did Stone Brewing's Arrogant Bastard, a big, malty 7.2% alcohol ale, when it was released in 1997.
That beer is now the No. 1-selling single-serve craft beer in America, Koch says. And it's considered the progenitor of the now-popular style known as American strong ale.
Though it's impossible to draw a strict line between regular and strong beers, most industry experts say anything over 7% could qualify as "strong."
More than half of the several hundred beers stocked at Red Carpet Wine in Glendale meet that definition, according to Michael Jonasen, who manages the store's beer program. Hence the large selection of single 22-ounce beers in place of six-packs.
Still, only a handful of beers cross the 14% line.
"Strong beers are creating buzz, but at a smaller scale," Jonasen says. "And sometimes I'll have customers who will look at the alcohol percentage on the bottle and say, 'Oh, that's too much.' "
Although Red Carpet sold out of Utopia before the shipment even reached the store, he says, they could get only 10 bottles.
The 27% Utopia has attracted a connoisseur consumer following similar to Cognac, in which one bottle will be shared among as many as a dozen people out of snifters.
Serving beers this strong in bars is a whole different story.
"It presents this interesting problem of how to serve it and what size is appropriate," says Ryan Sweeney, co-owner of the Surly Goat, a beer bar in West Hollywood that specializes in rare draft beers. "It's not like you're going to give them a pint glass."
The other sticking point is price: With Tactical Nuclear Penguin selling for as much as $55 for a 12-ounce bottle, it would be extremely pricey if sold on draft. Even the gutsiest brewers know the casual drinker would never buy it.
Luckily, a few sips of the pungent, salty, almost beef-jerky flavor of Tactical Nuclear Penguin goes a long way. At a recent tasting in Los Angeles, Watt popped a single bottle and split it between more than 50 lucky attendees who lined up for a sip. Not yet legal to sell in the U.S., one bottle was all he could smuggle in his luggage, Watt said.
As for who will claim the strongest beer title next, Watt says it won't be BrewDog.
"We are all out at 41%," he says. In fact, the company's next release will be a tame Scotch ale brewed with berries.
How tame? A wee 12%.