Editor’s note: This “Beer Me” column first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #148, published in April 2010. Words by Alastair Bland. Photo by Justin Steiner.
Beer has a long history of accidents. Historians have speculated that a sack of spilled barley, left out in the rain, produced the first pint somewhere in the Fertile Crescent as microbes and yeasts did their magic on the grain. Much later, when British pale ales spoiled during long boat journeys to colonial India, brewers had to boost the alcohol and hops levels as preservation measures, resulting in the first India pale ales.
Sometime around 1890 in the German city of Kulmbach, there occurred another fortunate mishap. It happened in the depth of winter, according to legend, when several barrels of bock-style lager were left unintentionally in the yard of a local brewery at closing time. That night a deep freeze settled on the land. Snow fell, too, and the forgotten barrels disappeared under a foot of fresh powder. Days or months later—accounts vary—the brewmaster discovered the barrels. The beer within had frozen, expanded and burst open the casks. Upon closer examination, the brewmaster found that a central core of deep brown, super-cooled liquid remained within the ice—and it was delicious and doubly strong, an amplified version of the starting beer. The ice within the barrels was almost pure frozen water, and in effect, the beer had been distilled. The brewer, so goes the legend, so enjoyed this strengthened beer that he began making it every winter. So was born the eisbock, still a popular style, hallmarked by the Kulmbacher Eisbock itself—the original ice beer.
In modern times, brewers no longer rely upon cold nights and snow drifts to produce these beers. Rather, they recreate the process, sometimes in walk-in freezers. Ice distillation is the name of the game. While illegal for commercial purposes in the United States, ice distillation is perfectly acceptable in Europe, and the beers face no barriers, either, from export to America. Thus, many eisbocks are available, and an interesting one to sample is that of Aventinus, as it can be tasted next to its undistilled counterpart, the Wheat Doppelbock. The original beer, 8.2 percent alcohol, tastes up front of toffee, candy, cloves and caramel, with a blast of heavy wheat on the finish. The Weizen Eisbock, at 12 percent, smells hotter and tastes of mulled wine and Christmas spices. The Kulmbacher Eisbock is a bit less strong, but nuttier and thick with caramel and maple.
Other European breweries apply ice distillation to non-bock beers. BrewDog in Fraserburgh, Scotland, for example, released the Tactical Nuclear Penguin in late 2009. Made from an imperial stout—10 percent ABV to start—the Penguin was ice distilled again, and again, and again. Upon completion of its final round, the fluid measured 32 percent ABV. I was lucky enough to taste it. The beer is overwhelmingly ashy in taste, very burnt and smoky, with intense sweetness, nonetheless. The overriding effect is that of sharp alcohol. The Penguin was hailed for several months as the strongest beer ever made. Then, in January, the German brewery Schorschbräu announced the release of a 40 percent ABV eisbock that has been shown to literally burn. Clearly, the game is getting crazy.
While American brewers stick to the sidelines, just as in the old days of beer evolution, accidents can happen. In Bend, Oregon, a winter night and a bizarre twist of fate in the late 1980s rendered an enhanced beer after a burglar busted into Deschutes Brewery, snatched a keg of the company’s winter release, Jubelale, and abandoned the heavy load just a block away. Discovered at dawn, the keg of beer was frozen except for an interior pocket of ice distilled liquor. This winter, Deschutes brewed up Jubel 2010 to imitate (without freezing) that accidental beer of so long ago. The 10 percent ABV beer tastes of tart fruit, some faint vanilla and satisfying heavy malt.
I ice distilled a few beers at home with mixed results. In one experiment I poured five bottles of Brutal Bitter from Rogue Ales into a single glass vase. Several hours in the freezer made a slush of the beer. Turned on its side on the counter and drained for 15 minutes into a bowl, a darkened version settled out of the ice. The beer had been a firmly hopped IPA before and was now enriched in maltiness, bitterness and color—and noticeably strengthened in ABV. Sadly, a six-pack was reduced to two beers’ worth. I also froze five bottles of Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale in the same vase. Solidified into a slush, then drained, 20 ounces of dark, sweet beer emerged—a barley wine, perhaps? But the great surprise of the experiment was the can of Coors Banquet. This piece of shit, frozen and then punctured with a screwdriver, spewed two ounces of sweet, rich and powerful lager into a stein, and—no joke—it almost tasted like Duvel.
Freezing beer can work wonders. The three drawbacks to the process are a reduced volume of beer, loss of carbonation and the risk of attaining a nasty “freezer burn” taste if left too long in its chilly confinement. However, for special occasions, ice distillation is a party gag about as good as they get.