Source: Daily Mail
By VINCENT GRAFF
There’s a lethal weapon in my hand. It might look to you like a bottle of beer. But this one could knock you dead.
Called ‘Armageddon’ – the name is no accident – it is the strongest beer in the world. At 65 per cent alcohol, it’s stronger than whisky or brandy and 16 times more potent than a standard pub lager. This 330ml bottle contains 22 units of alcohol – the equivalent of ten pints of Carlsberg.
And, like that other famous novelty, the deep-fried Mars Bar (which has just celebrated 20 years since its creation), it’s a gift to the world from the good people of Scotland.
Though ‘gift’ is probably not the right word: if you buy this in a shop, it’ll cost £80 a bottle (though you can buy it for half that price direct from the brewery).
‘Go on, take a mouthful,’ says brewer Lewis Shand, the young entrepreneur responsible for the brew. ‘I think you’ll be surprised.’
OK, but I’m not looking forward to it. I’m a bit of a sissy when it comes to strong booze. Though I love my beer and wine, I steer clear of neat spirits, finding their fiery nature rather off-putting.
Surely, if Scotch is a mere 40 per cent alcohol, and this beer weighs in at 65 per cent, it’ll rip off the back of my throat?
I swirl the liquid round. Thicker than an average pint of bitter, and darker in tone, the beer is the colour of tea with the consistency of a thinnish gravy.
I take a big, brave gulp.
To my surprise, it’s rather smooth. There’s none of the heat or the harshness of neat tequila or vodka; it slips over my tongue and down my throat, lining my mouth with a thick coating.
Yes, it is quite bitter – I prefer a milder-tasting ale – but it’s not off the scale. There’s a definite maltiness and a rather pleasant sweet aftertaste at the centre and back of my tongue.
I’m happy to take a second sip. Just curiosity, you understand. And a third, and a fourth. . . I could, I’m sure, empty the glass.
Hold on a moment. I think I’d better stop while I’m ahead.
So, I ask Shand, why did he decide to brew a beer so potent? Is it something to do with the fact that the Scots consume 20 per cent more alcohol (22.8 units a week) than the English and Welsh?
The idea was simple, he says. His young company Brewmeister, set in the Aberdeenshire countryside, had successfully created conventional beers – a tasty 4 per cent pale ale, for example – but wanted to try something more adventurous.
Shand is not the first brewer to aim for the world’s strongest beer. In fact, there’s been a battle going on for a couple of years.
While it could be seen as an important piece of scientific exploration, others see it as just a bunch of not-quite-grown-up boys who want to be able to shout out to the world: ‘Mine is bigger than yours!’
Three years ago, another British company, BrewDog, also based in north-east Scotland, created Tactical Nuclear Penguin (don’t ask), which came in at 32 per cent alcohol.
This threw down the gauntlet.
In stepped a German brewer with Schorschbock, a 40 per cent beer. So BrewDog retaliated with Sink The Bismarck, at 41 per cent. The Germans then came back with a 44 per cent brew, only for BrewDog to trump them with The End Of History, at 55 per cent alcohol (though only 12 bottles were ever produced – and each cost £700 and as a gimmick was sold inside a stuffed squirrel).
Then in July 2010 a brewery in Holland looked to have seized the title – with a 60 per cent beer called Start The Future.
Until Shand came along with Armageddon a few weeks ago.
The brewer says: ‘We didn’t want just to break the record but to make something that’s got some character to it, something beautifully sweet and malty.’ Yeah, right.
In an age of binge-drinking, isn’t it irresponsible to bring out a product as potent as this?
Shand says this is not a beer that problem-drinkers will turn to. ‘We’ve designed it for people to consume like a fine brandy, in small amounts, not sitting in a park with a brown paper bag round the bottle. In any case, the price will put off problem-drinkers. These bottles are for sharing.’
So who is his typical customer?
‘People who like something different, who appreciate a fine quality product that’s made in small batches by people who care about what they’re doing.’ (Privately, I think there’s a big market for stag parties.)
The Brewmeister brewery is certainly out of the ordinary. Set in a tatty, 200-year-old farm building on the estate of Kincardine Castle, 25 miles outside Aberdeen, it looks out on to the Cairngorms. They use spring water from the estate to make the beer.
Inside, there are metal vats and sacks of malted barley, hops and yeast – but it’s clear everything is done on a very small scale: the beer is brewed in batches of just 40 bottles at a time. ‘Though we plan to expand,’ says Shand.
The place, frankly, is a bit of a mess: there’s a shotgun by the door – in case any rats decide to feast on the large sacks of grain piled against the wall.
But Shand is no ordinary brewer. The son of an accountant and an oil executive, he’s still only 26, the same age as his business partner, John McKenzie. The pair launched the business with a £15,000 investment that Shand had amassed at university (‘I started up a paintballing company while I was a student.’)
Though the business is still tiny – Shand has a day job with a bank, and McKenzie works off-shore in the oil industry – Shand says they’ve already had orders from ‘Australia, Sweden, America and a lot from London’. The next batch of Armageddon, which will be ready in a few days, is sold out.
So what’s the secret of this super-strength beer?
The answer is a process called ‘freeze distillation’.
Any traditional beer-maker can, with the right choice of yeast, get to a point where the beer is 10 or 12 per cent alcohol. After that, the high alcohol levels kill off the yeast that is turning the sugars in the malt into more alcohol, so you can’t get stronger beer using traditional methods.
But Brewmeister’s trick is to cool the beer to zero degrees, when, of course, the water starts to freeze – but the alcohol does not. So if you discard the ice as it forms, making the drink less diluted, what you’re left with is a very alcoholic mixture.
But not a fiery one – because the alcohol is still swimming in the malty-hoppy mixture.
‘What we do is the reverse of conventional distillation. When you make whisky, you heat up the mixture and the alcohol evaporates, taking it away from the grain mixture. Then it is condensed and aged in barrels.
‘But we leave the alcohol inside the grain mixture and take the water out. This means the end product tastes much sweeter and less harsh.’
It still qualifies as ‘beer’ since it uses the classic ingredients: water, malted barley, hops.
Shand says: ‘We don’t add sugar or rice, rubbish like that, which you sometimes get in lagers.’
This, he insists, is a niche artisan product – albeit an expensive one at £80 a pop.
The reason for the high cost? They brew only very small quantities of beer at any one time, and the freeze distillation process means they throw away about 85 per cent of the brew mixture. Plus, ‘about £12 of the price goes straight to the taxman’.
‘We are,’ Shand says grandly, ‘testing the boundaries of brewing.’
Well, I suppose so.
The truth is that despite its liver-busting alcohol content, it tastes far better than the tramp’s favourite, Carlsberg Special Brew, which is 9 per cent. Although the taste is nowhere near as enjoyable as that of a conventional real ale.
As I leave the brewery, Lewis Shand says: ‘We’re in the process of having the record verified by the people from Guinness.’
With the mention of Guinness, I suddenly feel thirsty – and realise that I’ll be sticking to a more traditional beer.
Source: Daily Mail