There was a time not that long ago when a bottle of Chimay Brewery’s Grande Reserve Blue Label’s 9% alcohol by volume was caused titillation for beer drinkers. But that was a time when your typical IPA was 6% ABV and even the most muscular porters were no more than 7% abv and DVDA still referred to an audio output on your home theater system.
And then Stone happened.
A single brewery in San Diego changed the face of West Coast micro-brewing, which hitherto had been producing beers in fairly traditional light-to-moderately hoppy ales in broad New World takes on classic Old World styles that were between 4-6% abv. With its signature gargoyle logo and an aggressively macho approach to marketing its beers that previously had been reserved solely for hot sauce and competitive meat eating, Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale starts at 7.2% abv and only climbs from there.
(I should note that, although I find their high gravity beers as well as their general aesthetic distasteful, I do think that Stone is an excellent brewery and I would consider their Pale Ale and regular IPA to both be classic examples of those respective styles.)
With Stone’s success, a myriad of breweries specializing in high octane beers proliferated in California–at Orange County’s The Bruery for instance you’d be hard pressed to find a beer that’s under 9% abv–and California’s venerable pioneering microbreweries like Anchor and Anderson Valley Brewing Company seemed quaint by comparison.
Following the Hop Revolution was America’s “discovery” of Belgian Ales which helped push abv to new heights. Despite the fact that Belgium produces a huge range of beer styles, many of which are not 10% abv, suddenly Belgian became virtually synonymous with high-alcohol. With paradoxical styles like “Belgian IPA” now available, brewing has reached new heights of hop bitterness and high-alcohol fetishization.
I don’t find these types of beers unpleasant in and of themselves, but the current cultural obsession means that I often can’t go to a craft beer bar in LA and find something to drink that’s under 7% ABV, or if I can I’m limited to 1 or 2 options while having a half-dozen or more heavily hopped or high gravity Belgian-style offerings available. And you can’t tell me that a great moderate alcohol beer like Anchor Liberty Ale, Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout, or Black Butte Porter are any less flavorful and complex than any Imperial Russian Stout and expect me to agree with you.
As a wine lover and whiskey fan, I use beer as my go-to beverage if I’m out with friends and want to have 3 or 4 drinks and not get totally hammered. For reasons related to both pleasure and financial practicality, I also don’t want to drink my beer 6 ounces at a time from a tulip-shaped glass, I want to drink it by the proper pint. Wine belongs in stemware, not beer.
Because as I’ve written about before, if I’m drinking something 6 ounces at a time, I’m going to pick wine over beer 90% of the time because that’s the role wine is meant to play. I appreciate and enjoy Belgian Ales and other higher alcohol beers in the right context, with a meal or safely at home while watching a movie for instance, however when I’m out and about enjoying beer I want to be able to knock back pints without ending up in a bathtub full of ice and missing most of my organs.
I’ve seen it happen at The Bruery, metaphorically speaking of course.