Why alcohol levels keep creeping up in craft beers

Ten years ago, Samuel Adams released a limited-edition beer, Utopias, that has gathered a cult following among craft beer lovers due to its “extreme barrel-aging” technique. What probably makes it so sought after is that it’s 28 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).

That’s insanely high, considering most beers made by large-scale American breweries average an ABV of 3.5 percent. The beer costs $199 and is cannot legally be sold in 15 states, according to a Nov. 7 story in Esquire. (Michigan is not among the states where it’s illegal.)

Utopias is made with a special malt combination as well as three varieties of hops and special yeast strains to create a deep, rich, extremely flavorful beer that is closer to a Port or a Cognac rather than something like a Budweiser – an extreme example of the style, texture and high alcohol content that craft beer lovers have grown accustomed to.

It’s obvious this style of beer is growing in popularity, but how much does the alcohol content contribute to that? Are we all a bunch of alcoholics, or is there a reason craft beers’ ABV is skyrocketing, compared to mass market beers?

Travis Fritts, head brewer at Old Nation Brewing Company in Williamston, said money is one of the reasons.

“The struggle that craft brewers face is that it’s difficult to differentiate between your beer and the beers that are produced on a larger scale,” Fritts said. “Craft beer producers must charge more per bottle and brewers wonder how they can justify that price. Higher alcohol by volume is a way to do that.”

When beers rose to popularity in the United States around the mid-19th century, there weren’t many other drink options.

Independence from Great Britain had dramatically reduced imports of rum. Hard cider was being made, but not enough to supply demand. Whiskey was popular then, as it is now. Otherwise, beer was it — and Americans drank a lot of it.

As immigrants came to the U.S., people from big beer-making countries like Germany changed the U.S. landscape of beer making and drinking. Because they thought American drinkers wouldn’t enjoy the European maltheavy beers they were accustomed to, they substituted corn and rice for some of the barley, lightening the beer’s flavor.

Today’s mass marketed beers like Budweiser, Miller and Coors still do this to create all their similarly light beers. Rice appears in Budweiser’s ingredient list and corn is in almost all of MillerCoors’ beers.

Fritts has been a professional brewer for 16 years, studying brewing in Europe, managing a Royal Oak brewery and working for Detroit Brewing Company before coming to Old Nation Brewing Company in Williamston. In his experience, people who drink beers from big breweries like Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors choose those beers by brand, not necessarily flavor.

“They all basically taste the same,” Fritts said. “It’s really about choosing which brand identifies closer with your personality. Similarly, craft beer producers understand that our drinkers want stronger and more aggressive beers.”

It makes sense that brewers use more flavor-producing products to get stronger, more aggressive beers, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee higher quality.

“A big misconception is that craft brewers use better grains or hops, or that they use superior products to create their beers than the larger-scale producers,” Fritts said. The craft brewers themselves have encouraged that misconception, but Fritts said it’s not so.

“Busch, for example, isn’t using worse grain or products, they’re probably using better or at least as good,” he said. “They’re just making a product that they know their audience wants.”

He explained that the bulk of the grain the bigger producers use is malted barley, which produces barley malt – the source of sugar in beer. All brewers use this, but craft brewers use more because they want more flavor and more alcohol content, both of which comes from using sugar.

“High alcohol beers can be delicious and they will affect you more quickly, but that’s not to say there aren’t low alcohol beers that don’t have flavor as well,” he said. “It’s important for us to make it clear that we don’t want people to drink irresponsibly. There are a lot of beers out there with great flavor, which is what I’m hoping beer drinkers are focusing on, not necessarily alcohol content.”