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Warm up your winter with strong beers

Now that the celebrations of the holiday season are in the rearview mirror, the cold dark nights are a quiet, reflective time for some. For others, this is the time to get outside for some snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Whatever you spend t...

Strong beer is a catch-all description for beers that are over 8 percent alcohol and as high as 25 percent. Thinkstock / Special to The Forum
Strong beer is a catch-all description for beers that are over 8 percent alcohol and as high as 25 percent. Thinkstock / Special to The Forum

Now that the celebrations of the holiday season are in the rearview mirror, the cold dark nights are a quiet, reflective time for some. For others, this is the time to get outside for some snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Whatever you spend the winter doing, strong beers are a great complement to the chilly season.

Strong beer is a catch-all description for beers that are over 8 percent alcohol and as high as 25 percent. I'm often asked what's the strongest beer? A brewery in Scotland, Brewmeister Brewery in Keith, brews two beers that qualify - one is 65 percent alcohol and the other is 67.5 percent. These are sippers, for sure.

How do beers get a bump in alcohol to become "strong"? The amount of fermentable sugar a brewer provides his or her yeast determines the amount of alcohol produced. As I like to say to simplify the fermentation explanation, yeast eats sugar and produces alcohol.

The more sugar you feed healthy yeast, the more alcohol can be produced. Often, special alcohol-tolerant yeast strains are used to avoid premature fermentus interruptus from yeast not powerful enough to forge ahead.

There are other ways to increase the alcohol in strong beers. One simple approach is the addition of sucrose - commonly known as table sugar. This is a fairly uncomplicated way to increase the alcohol content as it is easily fermentable and dries out the beer, increasing drinkability.

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An interesting way to create strong beer was invented in Germany. It's called fractional freezing. This method involves lowering the temperature of fermented beer until ice forms. Because alcohol has a lower freezing point than water and does not freeze, the ice (water content) can be removed or filtered out which increases the beer's alcohol concentration. The style best known for this process is Eisbock, or "Ice-Bock."

All of these stronger brews are meant to be enjoyed slowly and in moderation like a whiskey or a glass of wine. A couple are even named after wine like wheatwine and barleywine. These are basically wine strength beers not to be enjoyed by the pint.

Now that I've described how to brew high-alcohol beers, let's look at some styles so you, the beer hunter, can locate them.

Strong styles in the lager category include: bock, doppelbock, eisbock, euro strong lager, imperial Pilsner, Baltic porter and malt liquor.

And some strong selection from the ale family are: Belgian tripel, grand cru and golden strong, weizenbock, old ale, strong ale, wee heavy, Russian imperial stout, barleywine, wheatwine, triple and quad IPA, imperial porter and honey beer.

I listed too many here to go into detailed definitions, but they have a few things in common. All but the IPAs feature big malt profiles that often taste somewhat sweet to the drinker. The higher alcohol content provides a warming sensation in the stomach. These beers are regularly called "winter warmers" for this reason.

When I brew these beers at my place, I only serve them in 10-ounce or smaller glasses to encourage that they are to be savored, not quaffed.

Strong beers usually take longer to brew, often up to one year of maturing time, so they can be a bit on the spendy side at times. They're worth the extra pennies and effort to seek them out for their drinkable warmth on a cold winter's day.

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Dave Hoops lives in Duluth and is a veteran brewer and beer judge. Contact him at dave@hoopsbrewing.com .

Strong beer is a catch-all description for beers that are over 8 percent alcohol and as high as 25 percent. Thinkstock / Special to The Forum
Dave Hoops is the head brewer at Fitger's Brewhouse in Duluth.

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