Beer, historians tell us, is the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world. Some believe that it was known even to the cavemen.
Beer is made from fermented grains of various kinds, usually malted barley these days, often with flavoring agents added — everything from the traditional hops to pumpkin spice.
Fermentation results from the interaction of yeast and sugar, producing alcohol and C02 (carbonation). Brewers have various ways of controlling the alcohol level, and they can make beer containing almost none or quite a bit. Alcohol-free beer measures less than 0.05% ABV — alcohol by volume, which means the portion of the liquid that is pure alcohol — while conventional high-proof beers can easily climb to 9% or 10%. The average is 4.5%.
In recent years, though, ABVs have been inching higher. Traditional beer can only get so strong. If the alcohol level gets too high during fermentation, it kills the yeast, bringing the process to a halt. But earlier in the century, some brewers started using super-strong yeasts in an effort, largely successful, to make beer that was as strong as wine — typically measuring between 11% and 16%.
Strong yeasts aren’t the only way to make strong beer. A traditional Bavarian beer style called Eisbock uses a process called cryoconcentration, or fractional freezing, to increase ABV up to around 13%. When beer is subjected to very cold temperatures, the water it contains freezes before the alcohol. Remove the ice — eis in German — from the liquid, and what remains is thus stronger.
In 2010, a Belgian brewery called De Struise decided to take the process further, manipulating the freezing process until it managed to produce a beer with an alcohol level of 26%. Other brewers responded, and the race was on — culminating, at least for now, in a beer with an ABV of 67.5%, higher than that of most liquors.
Compiling a list of the strongest beers in the world is tricky. Craft brewers tend to make specialty beers in miniscule quantities, and while some popular brews are produced anew every year, some appear once and then disappear into legend. ABVs don’t necessarily remain constant from one bottling to the next, either. And there are new ones appearing all the time.
Some of the beers listed here are still in production and some are gone either permanently or at least for now, but none are easy to find. Collectors and specialty websites sometimes sell beers that are no longer produced, and they tend to age well, so the fact that they’re a few years old isn’t necessarily a concern.
It’s also important to remember about the world’s strongest beers, especially the ones over 18% or so, that they usually don’t taste much like beer. They lose carbonation as they grow in ABV and are often sweet but also harsh. They can also be deceptively dangerous, with alcohol contents approaching those of vodka or whisky. You’d be hard-pressed, and ill-advised, to drink a whole bottle of most of these. They’re beers for sipping and for talking about, not for quenching your thirst or accompanying a burger.