Hopheads may insist that the only quest in the craft beer space race is to reach the highest-level International Bitterness Unit—without utterly destroying one’s palate. But, judging from the click bait that populates the interwebs, it ain’t about the hops. It’s about big-ass beers with sky-rocketing levels of alcohol. This is not that list. For every brewer that drops a special-release high-ABV-rated bottle (we’re looking at you with dumbfounded amazement, Sam Adams’ Millennium, with your 20% ABV and insane auction prices), there are a handful of U.S. brewers that regularly release strong beer just because they love the style.
Something of a cult status among serious beer freaks, Hair of the Dog specializes in small-release, bottle-conditioned brews that almost always have high alcohol levels—often because that’s how the beer style works. The extra sugars in their beers also help the brew age in the bottles over subsequent years of cellaring.
Try: Adam, the first beer produced by the brewery, ranks in at 10% and is best described as a dessert beer, ideal with chocolates or cigars. Up the game with a barrel-aged version, which amps the ABV by 2% and introduces a lot of nice wood elements from American oak barrel-aging.
Even though there are legions of brews in this Michigan brewer’s lineup, the Dragon’s Milk—a bourbon barrel-aged stout with 11% ABV—proved to be the beer upon which they built their expanding craft beer empire. Since then, they’ve let high-strength serve as a kind of north star, with imperial and double IPAs, sours, and imperial stouts (along with all the lower-ABV beers every brewery has to produce, of course).
Try: Dragon’s Milk really is a champion version of the barrel-aged stout style, and worth of all the accolades. But which one? You can go with the classic, but also consider special releases with everything from raspberry and lemons to coffee and chocolate to a strain of Dragon’s Milk aged in coconut rum barrels.
Other brewers make more high-ABV beers than Maryland-based Flying Dog. But if you ever find yourself at a show at Washington, DC’s famed 9:30 Nightclub, order a Raging Bitch Belgian IPA, which ranks in at 8.3%—likely the highest-ABV beer on the menu. Your bar tab won’t send you into shock at the end of the night cause two will do ya’, without letting you overdue it. The brewery makes a handful of other killer high-strength beers, including imperial stouts and IPAs. And the labels are drawn by Ralph Steadman, the illustrator perpetually attached to the mad, alcohol- and drug-fueled genius of Hunter S. Thompson.
Try: Raging Bitch is a sold go-to, but if you love Hunter S. Thompson, you’re almost obligated to try the Gonzo—an imperial porter bearing the scribe’s mad likeness on the label and a 9.2% ABV that only the man himself could shrug off after a few rounds. Bonus points for hunting down the limited barrel-aged version.
This is the only brewery on the list that lets you sort their beer roster by alcohol level. ‘Nuff said. Their gose starts at a modest 4.5%, and they slowly ratchet up in various style-appropriate ABV levels before tipping the scales with their 8% Raja Double IPA and eleven others in relatively regular release—and that ain’t counting the barrel aged series, which boasts 5 Monks, a crazy-strong quad with 19.4% ABV (first bottled in 2014)
Try: There are bigger beers in their limited-release barrel age programs, but the Fortuna ranks in at a still respectable 8.1% and is a solid example of what Avery has been doing with tequila barrels. This one includes lime zest and salt. You’d think, margarita! You’d be wrong.
This North Carolina-based brewer has the requisite IPAs and brown ales in their roster, but they’re more focused on becoming “the leading producer of wild fermented beer in the southeastern U.S” (Look out…Wicked Weed?). And while only one beer really tips the scale in terms of crazy-level alcohol, it does it so damn well…
Try: Their new Defying Gravity series is focused on producing strong sour ales that…don’t taste anywhere near its double-digit ABV levels. And if the first (and currently the only) beer in that series is any indication, look out! The Cape Canaveral uses papaya, grapefruit, and pineapple and ranks in at 14% without blowing your over—it’s dangerously drinkable. Magic? Nope—science. The beer goes through three distinct fermentation processes with four different microflora to tame the burn.
This “gypsy” brewery makes their beer in “10 of the best breweries around the world” to produce some truly memorable beers—and some truly memorable names. Some will scream “high ABV” to the discerning consumer. To others…take it slow. We’re talking about Liquid Double Fudge (12%), Cognac Barrel-Aged Jesus (12%), Molotov Heavy (18%), Pappy’s Imperial Biscotti Break (11.5%), I Love You with My Stout (12%)… You get the idea.
Try: They’ve really mastered sours and brett-based beers, but for higher ABV go with the Imperial Biscotti Break, an imperial stout that exemplifies how well Evil Twin uses sweet ingredients in their favor.
Work on beers in the Belgian style, and you’ll undoubtedly flirt with higher-ABV brews. And California-based Bruery does it sooooo well. They also made it more complicated when their sours were moved under the Bruery Terreux brand in 2015, which seems to have allowed them to produce more beers in that vein. Either way, you’ll find bold flavors and big beers.
Try: Split the difference. The Bruery’s 9 Ladies Dancing is the latest in their annual-release “12 Days of Christmas” release, measuring in at 11.3% with flavors inspired by tiramisu, while the Bruery Terreux’s Quadrupel Tunnellerie (10.2%) lends some serious sour funk to a quad, an unconventional beer to imbue with George Clinton-level funk.