Taste: Spirits: Make Mine a Double

Watch out: American brewers are raising the limits with high-alcohol beers


There was a time when we knew what to expect from our beer: Five percent alcohol was a safe bet, whether you were sipping pale lager or dark stout, foreign or domestic. But bold, malty brews are upending that easy-drinking expectation, with many beers flirting with strengths of 10 percent alcohol or more.

Strong beers were once rare specialties. Using more malted grain and less water yields a thicker brew loaded with explosive flavor, but it comes at a far higher cost. Many of these strong beers were seasonal brews, like British barley wines or German doppelbocks, the latter brewed for Lent and packed with enough nutrition to allow monks to forgo their daily bread. Or they were from Belgium, a land known for remarkably complex ales that clock in at wine-like strengths of seven to 12 percent alcohol. Hardly brews to suck down by the pint, Belgian ales, with a hint of sweetness from unfermented malt sugars, are meant to be savored slowly, often from small-stemmed goblets.

The Belgian penchant for potency has caught on in the U.S. Free of traditional constraints, American craft brewers push the flavor envelope by turbo-charging their recipes “Belgian-style.” Microbreweries breathed new life into relics of British colonial times like India Pale Ale, a stronger, hoppier version of pale ale, and Russian Imperial Stout, a syrupy black ale two to three times stronger than Guinness. And the taste for strong, malty beer has led to the emergence of uniquely American styles, like the Double I.P.A. and the Imperial Pilsner, the words “Double” and “Imperial” being beer shorthand for “will knock you off the bar stool.” Now, American brewers regularly trump the Belgians at the strong beer game: Sam Adams’s Utopias and Dogfish Head’s World Wide Stout are close to 20 percent alcohol.

As the days get shorter, stronger beers are cropping up on beer lists around town. Look for Belgian classics and their high-­powered spin-offs, like golden, hoppy Duvel or dark, raisin-y Ommegang, at taprooms like Eulogy in Old City and the Abbaye in Northern Liberties. Sample craft-brewed beers, like Victory Storm King Imperial Stout and La Fin Du Monde, at the White Dog Cafe in University City and Tria’s Rittenhouse or new Washington Square locations. Or try these turbo-brews at swank restaurants like Morimoto, where the Iron Chef’s signature line of Rogue Ales leaves an intense impression. The 22-ounce bottle of Morimoto Imperial Pilsner may need to be shared.

Old may consult for some of the businesses she writes about.