At breweries, an empty fermentation tank is an invitation to experimentation. Perhaps brewers will fill it with a snappy pilsner, fruited sour ale, or a dark mild. Just kidding! They’re probably going with an IPA.
When Skip Schwartz started at WeldWerks Brewery in Greeley, Colo., around four years ago, the head brewer would’ve likely looked to a standard-strength IPA just north or south of 7 percent ABV. That was the sweet spot for the hazy and citrusy Juicy Bits, WeldWerks’ flagship IPA (6.7 percent ABV).
“Now when we have empty tanks and we’re looking to create a new IPA, we’re usually looking at double IPAs,” says Schwartz, who aims for 8 percent ABV and above. “Juicy Bits would’ve been considered a higher ABV at one point in time,” he says. “Now that’s just a standard beer.”
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These are boozy days in craft beer. Fridges at convenience stores, grocers, and specialized retailers overflow with towering cans of imperial IPAs and Belgian-style tripels that aim for a higher power — the boosted ABV advertised in large print that’s legible from 15 paces away. These supercharged beers typically sell for less than $5 per 19.2-ounce can, a buzz without breaking the bank.
There’s Sierra Nevada Atomic Torpedo, an imperial IPA kicked up to 9.2 percent for “bigger and bolder imperial IPA intensity.” Victory Brewing’s flagship Belgian-style tripel, Golden Monkey, is a weighty 9.5 percent, as are the brewery’s Sour Monkey and Berry Monkey. Goose Island’s Tropical Beer Hug IPA reaches 9.9 percent ABV, while Flying Dog’s Double Dog IPA sits at 12 percent.
“We’ve been at this for over three decades, so we’re kind of old experts at pushing the boundaries of what craft beer can be,” says Ben Savage, the chief marketing officer for Flying Dog, which was founded in 1990 and is based in Frederick, Md. “And one of those boundaries that we feel really comfortable pushing is ABV.”
Boozier Beers Become More Approachable
Making colossal beers is a well-creased page in the craft brewing playbook. Over the decades, big barley wines, imposing imperial stouts, and intense IPAs have garnered headlines as onlookers gawked over extremes.
I should know. I’ve written articles touting Samuel Adams Utopias and its nearly 30 percent ABV, and clickbait BrewDog beers like the freeze-distilled The End of History, a 55 percent ABV behemoth packaged in bottles stuffed inside taxidermied squirrels. I also chronicled the early aughts arms race as brewers released IPAs that pushed the outer limits of bitterness, alcohol, and palatability.
In 2010, the troubled globetrotting brewery Mikkeller even released the 1000 IBU, which “tasted like chewing a hop field.” Nevermind that the technical limit for measuring international bitterness units, or IBUs, is around 100, so anything above is conjecture and marketing blather. A brewery could make anything! But should they? Intensities often sacrificed potability.
“That era of imperial was a novelty,” says Colleen Quinn, CEO of Greater Good Imperial Brewing Company in Worcester, Mass. Founded in 2016, Greater Good is the country’s first and so far only brewery exclusively focusing on imperial beers — nothing weaker than 8 percent ABV, no wanton bitterness or ghost peppers to be found.
Greater Good’s imperial range is approachable and diverse, from the expected hazy IPAs to unexpected Mexican-style lagers and blonde ales. “A major topic of our innovation meetings is, what styles do we want to try to realize that have never been imperialized?” says Quinn.
Language is important when describing strong beers. No matter the style or ABV, which normally navigates 8 to 12 percent, Greater Good classifies each beer as an “imperial,” minimizing confusion over, say, double or triple IPA. Double what? And where does triple begin?
The Beer Judge Certification Program’s guidelines decree that a double IPA runs from 7.5 percent to 10 percent ABV, yet it makes no mention of “triple IPA.” Definition often comes down to personal opinion. I believe that a double IPA begins at 8 percent ABV, while a triple tiptoes in at 10 percent. “Imperial” can be a catchall, but it’s also a curveball. “Whenever we’re writing the schedule, I’ll write ‘new double IPA,’” says WeldWerks’ Schwartz. “A couple of weeks ago, I accidentally wrote ‘new imperial IPA.’ Our marketing team was like, ‘What’s going on?’ Brewers were like, ‘Why did you switch it up?’”
Johnny Osborne is the founder of Deep Fried Beers, a high-alcohol-focused brand based in Catskill, N.Y. “If you’re into intense, vibrant expressions of hop character, that’s way more possible at a higher alcohol content,” he says. When Osborne’s formulating recipes, he’s careful to consider consumer perception. Though they’re close in percentage, there’s a mental chasm that separates a 9.5 percent ABV double IPA and a 10 percent ABV triple IPA. “All of a sudden it’s like, ‘Whoa, I don’t know if I want to drink all that right now.’”
Extra Alcohol Can Signal Value
Many double IPAs and other imperialized ales reach 8.5 percent ABV and higher these days. Breweries see supersizing as a sales opportunity to offer boosted-up offshoots of flagship beers and popular brands. There needs to be clear differentiation in strength between SKUs, though. Three Floyds Brewing just released Zombie Ice, the 8.5 percent ABV bigger brother to Zombie Dust (6.5 percent ABV). Tröegs Independent Brewing now has the 9.5 percent ABV Double Nugget, the souped-up version of Nugget Nectar (7.5 percent ABV). And Widmer Brothers’ brand-new Imperial Hefe (8 percent ABV) towers above its 4.9 percent ABV forebear.
For Blue Point Brewing’s 25th anniversary this year, the Patchogue, N.Y., brewery brewed a brawnier version of its flagship West Coast IPA, Hoptical Illusion. “It’s already a 7 percent beer, and simply going to 8 or 8.5 percent wouldn’t really feel like a Double Hoptical,” says innovation manager Adrian Hot, who also helped develop Imperial Sunshine, a citrusy 9.6 percent ABV blonde ale.
Blue Point settled on 9.5 percent ABV for Double Hoptical, which launched in March. “It was really important to try to hit a higher ABV,” Hot says. It costs around $18 per 6-pack of 12-ounce cans, a nice price for plenty of potent IPA.
Value in beer used to mean volume. Now elevated alcohol is a value proposition.
“Everyone’s wallets are a little tighter and they’re looking for a little more bang for their buck,” says Chris Brown, the vice president of sales at Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland. This February, the brewery released its fruity and gently bitter Vibacious, a 9 percent ABV IPA sold in 19.2-ounce cans for around $3. Grabbing one at a gas station after work offers a different kind of daily pleasure. “Instead of a Red Bull and a candy bar, you’re getting a nice IPA,” Brown says.
In particular, convenience stores are great venues for 19.2-ounce cans. Customers are shopping for instant gratification, be it a Big Gulp, a couple greasy hot dogs, or an aluminum smokestack of New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger Juice Force, a 9.5 percent ABV IPA.
“When people are making that decision to have one beer, they can amp up the ABV,” says Dave Knospe, the senior brand manager for the Voodoo Ranger IPA family. “It’s not a pantry-load situation.”
With a cartoon skeleton mascot, the Voodoo Ranger IPA family is one of craft brewing’s biggest successes, steadily increasing sales and variety. This year welcomed Fruit Force, a 9.5 percent ABV imperial IPA that tastes like fruit punch Kool-Aid. It’s a familiar flavor — childhood reformulated for adulthood. As with fond youthful memories, there’s no bitterness, only a sweet embrace that grows warmer with each sip. (Fruit Force is already a top 30 craft brand in IRI channels, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights.)
“Part of the role of Voodoo Ranger is to bring more people into IPA and into craft,” Knospe says.
Alcohol does play a role in purchasing decisions, but “brand and style are the top two things folks are looking for,” Knospe says. Regarding alcohol percentage, he adds: “I don’t know if there’s a magic number out there.”
Inexpensive speedways to intoxication are plentiful, many cheaper than beer. A flask of bottom-shelf vodka or a fistful of Fireball shooters will get you where you’re headed, no need for an imperial IPA. We collectively drink alcohol for countless reasons, be it celebration, sanding the contours of rough days, or just because a couple-beer buzz feels pretty good.
These new-model imperial beers are designed for pleasure and purpose, bringing additional numerical possibilities for your weekly drinking math. Maybe tonight’s a zero, meaning NA beer, or you’re rolling with a 6-pack of 4 percent light lagers. Another evening, a 9 percent ABV IPA might make a nice nightcap. The high-low approach to alcohol is helping breweries chart fresh futures.
This year marks Great Lakes’ 35th anniversary, and the brewery is adjusting course by sunsetting older brands like Burning River pale ale, emblematic of an earlier era. Call it a Vibacious shift. “We’re trying to create an enduring brand that’s around for another 35 years,” Brown says. “And with that, we’ve got to look at where the consumer is going, what their interests are, and be able to adapt.”