Getting Started with Extreme Beers

As part of the beer brewing process, malted barley undergoes a mashing process that leeches out the grain’s fermentable sugar, or maltose. Maltose is then converted to alcohol by the yeast during fermentation. That same grain also transposes its color in the beer and provides the beer with body, mouthfeel, and flavor. These three effects of the brewing process can be used to make a beer extreme by creating bigger body, bolder flavor, and a higher alcohol content.

Bigger body

That extreme beers have bigger body than normal beers is part-and-parcel of the brewing process. In order to get more flavor and more alcohol in the beer, bigger-bodied beer is the result. The process of creating a bigger-bodied beer is simple, really. If you want to brew a beer with more flavor and body, just use more malt. Adding more malt to the brew means more of everything that malt provides: color, flavor, texture, and fermentable malt sugars.

Even though most of the malt sugars are consumed by the yeast during fermentation, the average yeast doesn’t consume more than 75 to 80 percent of the available sugars. This means that, on average, 20 to 25 percent of the malt sugars remain in solution after fermentation. These leftover sugars translate to sweetness and body.

Dextrins are another important component derived from malt. Though they can’t be tasted, dextrins give the beer a sense of fullness and thickness on the palate. A beer with lots of dextrins in it feels more like motor oil on your palate than it does water.

Bolder flavor

Extreme beers are all about bold flavor. The table introduces you to some of the ingredients used to take a regular ol’ beer and turn it into an extreme brew. It also clues you in to why brewers add these ingredients and the effects these ingredients have on a beer’s flavor.

Packing a Flavorful Punch with Various Ingredients
Ingredient(s) Examples Why Added Effect
Dark-roasted grains Roasted barley, black malt, chocolate malt Increased flavor intensity Roasty, burnt, or dark chocolate flavors
Different malts Crystal malt, wood-smoked malt, peat-smoked malt Added malt sweetness, additional complexity Complexity and depth of flavor
Different hop varieties (or increased quantities) Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe Increased hop aroma and flavor, increased bitterness More intense overall hop character
Sugar sources and syrups Fruit and fruit extracts, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, treacle, and molasses More flavor, unusual flavors, increased alcohol content Complexity and flavor intensity
Herbs, spices, and unfermentable flavorings Vanilla bean, licorice, coffee, tea, ginger root, pumpkin, heather, chamomile, and hot peppers More flavor, unusual flavors Complexity and flavor intensity
Yeast Champagne strains of wild yeasts and bacteria Greater degree of fermentation, unusual flavors More alcohol, drier beer, flavors such as banana, bubblegum, and clove. Wild yeasts can create Sour Beers

Brewers also have the option of aging their beer for extended periods in oak barrels. Barrel-aging a beer results in a wide range of woody, oaky, cedary characteristics that aren’t unlike those you may encounter in some wines or whiskies.

Higher alcohol content

Not all brewers who set out to create an extreme beer have high alcohol content on their minds. In many cases, elevated ethanol levels in beer are just a happy byproduct of the recipe. When brewers brew a big-bodied beer for the purpose of flavor and mouthfeel intensity, the alcohol that results from all that malt almost can’t be helped. A brewer would have to go out of his way to keep the yeast from doing what it does naturally.

On the other hand, some brewers specifically set out to make high-octane brews. Some may do it for experimentation (“how strong can I make this beer?”), some as part of a game of one-upmanship, and some with the express intent of marketing big buzz beers.

For even the hardiest of beer yeasts to ferment a beer beyond 12 or 14 percent alcohol without falling into a stupor from alcohol toxicity isn’t normal. In order for yeasts to get to that level and beyond requires a little help from the brewer.

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