Beer to Wrestle With

High-alcohol, big-on-flavor beers are getting lots of attention from brewers and beer drinkers right now. San Francisco breweries Magnolia Pub & Brewery and the 21st Amendment even christened February "Strong Beer Month" and served six special beefed-up beers that they'd created. And in Munich, Starkbierzeit—strong beer season—has just started up. So what exactly defines a "strong" beer? Dave McLean, owner of Magnolia Pub & Brewery, says his definition is intentionally broad—any beer over 8 percent ABV—to allow himself more freedom to explore different styles and get creative. Because of the higher alcohol percentages, he explains, you can really "explore the outer reaches of beer flavor via the added structure … additional residual sugar, and more intense fermentation notes." The downside is that if handled wrongly, the beers can be very sweet. In addition to seeing the words strong beer, the term imperial is thrown around a lot. It's just another word for strong or big, "used as a modifier to an existing, less strong style," says McLean. Its use originally applied to stouts brewed in England with strong flavors and higher ABV for export to Russia, hence "Russian imperial stouts." Around the late ’90s, he says, brewers started attaching it to the first wave of double IPAs, to "connect the strong, over-the-top reputation of imperial stouts to this new breed of IPA." At this point, though, he says it's "been stuck in front of nearly every style pretty much to the point of overuse and joke status," noting that the SF Brewers Guild even created a tongue-in-cheek beer it called an imperial common, an intentional oxymoron. CHOW conducted an informal tasting of a dozen strong beers, using McLean's definition of anything over 8 percent ABV and sticking to bigger brands that are easier to get nationally. (All of these beers are available at BevMo!) Of the 12 beers, our favorites included the following, in no particular order:
Oskar Blues Gordon 8.7 percent ABV Imperial Red/Double IPA, about $10 per four-pack This Colorado-craft canned beer was a clear favorite of tasters. It also sparked a debate about its strong marijuana smell and possible subliminal messaging on the can: "can ’o bliss" sounds an awful lot like cannabis. Once people accepted that it was hops they were smelling, this brew was very well liked for the intensely floral, herbal, and hoppy aromas and surprisingly easy drinkability: rich, smooth, and pleasantly bitter.

Rogue Double Dead Guy 9 percent ABV Strong Ale, about $10 per 750-milliliter bottle Tasters thought this Oregon brew was clean and crisp, "kind of like a rubber eraser," and liked its malty flavor followed up with a bitter IPA-like finish. Refreshing enough to even work as a summer beer, noted one taster.

Flying Dog Double Dog 11.5 percent ABV Double Pale Ale, about $10 per four-pack This beer from Maryland-based brewer Flying Dog was found to be balanced and seemed lighter-bodied than some of the others we tried, despite packing the higher ABV. Tasters found it to be apricot-y, hoppy, slightly malty, bright, and sharp. It "goes down round," said one taster. Bonus: Illustrator Ralph Steadman does all the labels for the company's beers.

Avery The Czar 10.82 percent ABV Imperial Stout, about $7 per 22-ounce bottle A favorite among the darker beers we sampled, the Czar "smells of buttery sweet fruit, almost like buttery pears," and "tastes smooth and dense," said a taster. Despite being sweet and heavy, said another taster, it feels like you could actually have more than a few sips. Others liked the fruity, coffee, and chocolate flavors and smells, as well as the lingering flavor.

Dogfish Head World Wide Stout 18 percent ABV Imperial Stout, about $8 per 12-ounce bottle Despite an "overwhelming banana odor," tasters liked this super-high-alcohol stout from the Dogfish Head brewery out of Delaware. There was near unanimous surprise at how smooth-drinking it was for being so boozy. "Tastes like toasted molasses, very warming," said one taster; another was reminded of the classic bananas-and-chocolate flavor combo.

Lagunitas The Hairy Eyeball 8.83 percent ABV Strong Ale, about $10 per six-pack While "No actual eyeballs can actually be found in the beer," tasters did find a nice burnt caramel taste, good carbonation, and a "stouty meets hoppy" flavor that they liked. "It felt like root beer when it first touched my lips, nice, refreshing," said one.