Brews That Pack a Potent Punch

By Greg Kitsock
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 19, 2006

After the annual Thanksgiving gorge, less is more. For those who want to forgo the usual six-pack during the football game in favor of a beer digestif, craft breweries produce a variety of strong, flavorful beers better suited to a brandy snifter than a pint glass.

As rich as any fruitcake or plum pudding is Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout from the Great Divide Brewing Co. in Denver. Roasted grain gives the beer its ebony color and flavors of burnt coffee and bittersweet chocolate. Aging over a bed of French and toasted-oak chips lends a tannic, almost smoky aftertaste, as well as a hint of vanilla.

Yeti makes a potent nightcap, measuring 9.5 percent alcohol by volume (almost twice the 5 percent of mainstream American beers). It's available locally in 22-ounce containers that beer aficionados fondly call "bomber" bottles and that the Brewers Association (the small brewers' trade group) is trying to rechristen "dinner" bottles.

Samichlaus, an import from the Castle Brewery Eggenberg in Austria, means "Santa Claus" in a German dialect. This potent, reddish-amber lager is brewed each year on Dec. 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, and aged for 10 months before packaging, which means that bottles of the 2005 vintage are floating around area stores. (Don't worry about freshness: Ultra-strong beers such as this one benefit from a year or more of aging.)

Samichlaus clocks in at about 14 percent alcohol by volume, making it among the world's strongest commercially available lager beers. It's got a tremendous depth of sweet, caramel malt, with notes of plum and raisin, and gives your throat a slight alcohol burn. In case you plan to pass around bonbons after dinner, Samichlaus pairs very well with chocolate.

Extremely bitter beers can be difficult to integrate into a meal, as they'll overwhelm many foods. But these hop monsters can cleanse the palate of an accumulation of aftertastes and perk up the appetite for that leftover drumstick later on.

Gordon is a double India pale ale/red ale hybrid from Oskar Blues, a microbrewery/brewpub in Lyons, Colo. Four years ago, the brewery bought a mini-canning machine and discovered a market for better beer packaged in aluminum. Gordon is probably the strongest (8.7 percent alcohol) and the hoppiest beer available in cans, and certainly the most expensive (a four-pack will set you back $15). The first sensation on punching in the tab is a nose-tickling blast of pine needles and grapefruit from the Pacific Northwest hops. Roasted specialty malts provide some balance.

120 Minute India Pale Ale, from the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., is almost as far removed from Gordon as Gordon is from light beer. The latest batch clocks in at a little over 17 percent alcohol.

120 Minute IPA undergoes a continuous hopping during a two-hour boil (hence the name) and receives an extra ration of hops every day for a month during fermentation. In contrast to the hop rush of Gordon, 120 Minute IPA has a more subtle, enveloping hop character, with grassy and herbal notes. It has a slightly oily mouthfeel and a sweet malt underpinning. The alcohol is remarkably unobtrusive.

Coaxing a beer to this level of alcohol is quite a feat. Yeast cells, like humans, tend to sink into a stupor when they overeat.

Greg Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and senior editor of American Brewer magazine. He writes about beer once a month for Food and can be reached

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