Ice Beer – – Yum!

Although it is not promoted widely by the beer manufacturers, ice beer (also known as eisbock, the German designation for it) may be working its way into your consciousness.

It is manufactured by taking ordinary beer and sending it to subfreezing temperatures. (Note that this has nothing to do with the speeding Coors train; ice beer is frozen before it goes into the bottle and is served at a temperature which is well-above freezing.) Since alcohol will not freeze until the temperature falls below -100°F, by reducing a beer’s temperature to, say, 5°F (or 27° below the temperature at which water freezes), some of the water in beer will freeze – – but the alcohol remains. When the ice is removed, the remaining liquid, permitted to warm to its normal temperature, will have a higher percentage of alcohol; and according to one report, if the alcohol level can be held below 15%, the resulting beer typically will be rich and flavorful. The freezing process can also remove impurities; and if the level rises above 15%, the beer becomes thicker and will taste more like whiskey or brandy.

Interestingly enough, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (“TTB”) may regulate ice beers manufactured in the United States but has no authority to regulate or control importation of ice beers made outside this country. The TTB has ruled that no more than 0.5% of the beer may be removed by the distillation process described above. The result is that domestic ice beers have substantially lower levels of alcohol than those which are imported.

Curiously enough, the TTB has been permitting, on an informal basis, small breweries which manufacturer craft beers to circumvent its rule; and while the TTB is reluctant to approve an ice beer label for an American brewery outside of its regulation, it did in 2010 approve a label for Washington State Brewery Redhook’s Eisbock 28; a label which read:Aged for months at temperatures well below freezing; Eisbock 28 is extraordinarily smooth and malty with a bittersweet complexity achieved by ice processing.” It does tempt!

Eisbock 28 quickly sold out; yet there has been no Eisbock 29.

Since they are not regulated, several Canadian and German eisbocks are being imported, and, as you might expect, there is a race of sorts among these brewers to increase the alcoholic content. Two eisbocks that are available in Pennsylvania are Aventinus Weizen and Kulmbacher. A duel seems to have developed between the German brewery Kleinbrauerei Schorschbrau (“KS”) and the Scottish brewery BrewDog; they started at 32%, pushed it to 40%, then 41%. (Keep in mind that a typical beer’s alcoholic content runs between 3% and 6%.) BrewDog apparently decided to preempt further dueling by boosting its eisbock to 55%, announced that this was its limit, and wrapped each bottle in some kind of animal skin at the cost (hold on!) of nearly $1,000 each.
You may not be shocked to learn that KS is not content to cede the mantle to BrewDog, by raising the alcohol level in its Finis Coronet Opus to 57.7%! Blotto.

Even with the TTB’s informal relaxation of its rule for domestic brewers, it is unlikely that any brewery will make an effort to compete with BrewDog or KS. With alcohol levels in excess of most hard liquors (whiskey, vodka, gin, etc.), the eisbocks could be particularly pernicious; if we see a bottle labeled “Ice Beer”, our acculturation may lead us to imbibe it in quantities more akin to beer than hard liquor. At alcohol levels in the mid-50 percentages, a 16-ounce glass (a fairly standard glass of beer) might render a person suddenly senseless, with all of its attending consequences.

Ken Butera






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