From left to right: Brewers Michael Fay, Eric Brusewitz, Kriby Nelson, Nick Van Court, and Rob LoBreglio pose at the downtown Great Dane as the prepare to brew the biggest beer ever.
Two Madison brewers are teaming up to set their sights on one pinnacle of their craft: the biggest all-malt beer ever brewed. To achieve this goal, Rob LoBreglio of the have designed an elaborate brewing process that extends a fairly common one-day primary brewing period to more than five -- a feat that relies on some sophisticated beer science, artistic elements, and just plain luck.
Both brewers say they want to create a beer with a very high specific gravity, the result being a brew with an extremely high alcohol content. When specific gravity is measured at the beginning of fermentation, it is an indirect measurement of the amount of sugar in the beer that can be turned by yeast into alcohol.
The technical challenge in what LoBreglio and Nelson are attempting is not merely about making a beverage with a huge alcohol kick. Rather, it is about creating a true beer with extremely high alcohol content in the traditional manner of the Reinheitsgebot, the German Purity Law of 1516 that states only barley, hops, water and yeast shall be used to brew beer.
This is a critical distinction.
Other brewers claim their creations to be the biggest and strongest beer. Some beers, like Sam Adams Utopias, even top more than 20% alcohol by volume (ABV). Nelson and LoBreglio say many high alcohol beers are based on the use of brewing adjuncts like candi sugar and maple syrup. The two local brewmasters want to follow the German definition of beer by only using malted barley for the fermentable sugars that yeast converts to carbon dioxide and alcohol. They say their goal is to make a beer that exceeds 17% ABV. By comparison, standards like Budweiser or Miller come in at around 5% ABV.
Nelson and LoBreglio say they are documenting what is going into their beer, so if they exceed 17% they feel they have rights to the strongest beer title. While a handful of other big beers fall in the 12-14% range, LeBreglio says his research has found none with a higher alcohol content that can prove it was made following the Renheitsgebot. Their target to beat is a 14-15% ABV beer called Samichlaus, which means Santa Claus. This dopplebock is brewed at the Schloss Eggenberg, which is the oldest family-owned brewery in Austria.
"This is part of the never ending process of learning about brewing," says Nelson, "it's a challenge that makes it interesting for us and makes us better at what we do."
This experiment, as LoBreglio and Nelson call it, has been in the back of their heads as an engineering problem for about three years.
"I've made a number of barley wines, and I've talked with several other brewers, worked directly with consultants from Briess Malting in Chilton and Wyeast in Odell, Oregon on yeast to solve the technical issues of making this work," explains LoBreglio.
As they started the brewing process last Wednesday evening at the Great Dane's downtown brewpub, LoBreglio and Nelson even placed an emergency call to Wyeast to talk about concerns as they saw the wort -- the post-mashing liquid extract loaded with sugars -- cooling in the brew kettle. After reassurances, they went ahead and added their special yeast, which is actually a blend of three special strains that have shown tolerance for high alcohol environments.
To achieve their goal in this ten-barrel batch, the beer -- or rather the yeast -- required supplemental additions of wort. "We fed the beer incrementally, adding malt extract as many as 14 times over five days at four-to-five hour increments following the initial brewing," explains LoBreglio. "This beer took a ridiculous amount of malt, 1800 pounds in the mash during brewing and another 1200 pounds of malt during the incremental feeding."
Those 3000-plus pounds of malt is over six times the amount it takes to make the same size batch of the Great Dane's popular Landmark Lite, which has an ABV of 3.8%. One challenge for the big brew is that most yeasts don't do well in a very high alcohol environment, so add too much sugar and the fermenting beer becomes toxic for the yeast. "This should work on paper," notes Nelson, "but then again any little thing can make it go bad."
After nearly a week of baby-sitting and incremental feeding, the beer is now on its own in a fermentor. LoBreglio says it will need to ferment for about six month before it'll be ready for drinking.
"We're considering selling it 22-ounce 'bomber' bottles, which seems appropriate," jokes Nelson.
"No matter what the serving vessel, a beer with this high alcohol will be sold in limited quantities," adds LoBreglio. That means it'll be available over the Great Dane's bar in brandy snifters with only one per customer. He also notes that any bottled in bombers would likely be sold via a lottery process due to the small volume of the batch.
The flavor of beers made with large amounts of malt usually feature robust and assertive caramel and sometimes semi-sweet chocolate tones, along with a copper to bronze color. With the high level of alcohol that LoBreglio expects, drinkers should be able to feel some hints of warmth in the throat, similar to distilled spirits.
As for the beer's name, Nelson jokes about the round the clock brewing process. "We probably can't name it what we're thinking about during all this," he quips, "let's just say this beer's current name rhymes with its flavor -- rich."
The reality check for both brewers is that the cost of the raw materials that it takes to make such a big beer make this endeavor an unlikely money making proposition. Also, will the high alcohol content promote inebriation?
"Look at the breweries with strong beers around the world," observes LoBreglio. "They are sold in small quantities, at price that is not suited for large consumption. The price for this beer when it's ready to be served will likely be more than many distilled liquors and port wines."
That final price hasn't been set yet, but you can bet it won't be cheap. Sam Adams Utopias retails at approximately $130 for a 24-ounce bottle. On a recent trip to Boston, the original home of the Boston Beer Company, I found one bar selling it by the shot glass for $15. LoBreglio responds with a laugh when told about this. "Well, we might just break even at that rate," he says.
It's the challenge of making this extreme beer within the strictures of the Reinheitsgebot that ultimately drives both brewers, though. "For us, this is about the technical aspect of brewing," concludes LoBreglio. "We're doing this for the love of beer and the excitement of the experiment."