Local Brewers Raise Their Glasses to Higher Alcohol Content Law
Most people who spend as much time in a brewery as 25-year-old Red Oak employee Adam Thorn would wake before 9 a.m. seriously regretting their vices. But at that hour, the brewer clocked in for the last shift of his 40-hour week Friday in a bar and restaurant that is more often a destination for those trying to forget their daily grind.
Under thick wooden roof beams in the clear illumination provided by a panel of skylights the employees joked and smiled, carried coffee mugs and glasses of water. An aroma of oatmeal lingered from the last batch of mash. It would be hours before the bartender arrived and upended the first pint glass under a row of taps to transform what could be an industrious Bavarian farmhouse into a familiar den of iniquity.
A similar transformation in beer drinkers and the spectrum of their habit ‘— from connoisseurs to alcoholics ‘— occupied the spotlight of a recent debate in the General Assembly. Champions of the brewing craft clashed against opponents of its evils over raising the maximum alcohol limit in beers sold in North Carolina stores and restaurants. Gov. Mike Easley signed into law Aug. 15 a bill that raised the maximum amount of alcohol allowable in beers from 6 to 15 percent.
Microbreweries and beer aficionados joined forces to lobby the General Assembly this year for passage of the law. Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and South Carolina have 6 percent caps on beer, which excludes from retail almost a third of beer styles brewed around the world, according to Pop the Cap, an organization devoted to changing the prohibition.
The Christian Action League and other opponents of the change touted the potential pitfalls of raising the cap but failed to sway the governor. The group marshaled public health evidence about underage drinking and DUI in their effort to keep the 6 percent limit. The potential proliferation of high-alcohol malt beverages in poor neighborhoods also concerned some legislators opposed to the bill.
But local brewers contend that the legalization of high-alcohol beer will not have much impact on the beer market. ‘“There is a small consumer base that seeks out high-alcohol beer,’” said Chris Buckley, the 34-year-old brewmaster at Red Oak. ‘“Most breweries that specialize in high-alcohol beer have to market nationally because they can’t find enough consumers around their smokestacks to make it profitable.’”
Despite the small impact, Red Oak and other local microbreweries have already started thinking about introducing a limited number of high-alcohol beers into their repertoire.
‘“It goes along with educating people about beers,’” said Scott Christoffel, brewmaster at Natty Greene’s Pub & Brewing Company. ‘“We’re just not here to get people wrecked. We’ll maybe do two or three a year ‘— an Easter bock, something for the holiday and maybe for our anniversary.’”
Double and triple bocks, many Belgian beers and Russian imperial ale are among the spirits formerly prohibited by North Carolina law. In Germany, monks originally brewed double bocks as a sort of liquid bread sustenance for those fasting during Lent.
‘“We will be producing a double bock for Christmas available around Thanksgiving in keeping with our tradition [of] brewing German beers,’” Buckley said. ‘“Our seasonal will now be true bocks, which we couldn’t serve before.’”
Both Christoffel and Buckley studied their craft in Germany. Buckley likened beer in Germany to soft drinks in the United States ‘— the beverage of choice for most citizens. Christoffel said that brewers in Germany follow national purity laws called Reinheitsgebot that guarantee higher quality products.
Thorn walked me through the brewing process for Red Oak Amber Lager, which starts as a simple mixture of malted barley and 57 degree Celsius water. The mixture is heated to 63 degrees, which activates the grain and breaks starches down into sugar. He opened doors and turned valves on the mash kettle. The giant copper contraption looks like a set piece from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory ‘— all shine and spinning dials outside, and a sinister rotating blade inside called an agitator to mix the grains.
The mixture moves from the mash kettle to the lauter tun, where the solid barley is filtered from the water. Once the barley is filtered, the mash becomes wort and is transferred back into the first kettle where it is heated to a boil and hops are added. After boiling for 90 minutes, a whirlpool forces much of the beer’s protein into the center and the resulting liquid is cooled and sent into the fermentation tank.
Until the wort is sent into the fermentation tank, the liquid has no alcohol. Once it is in the tank, the sugar water mixes with yeast to produce alcohol. Malt is the ingredient key to regulating the alcohol content of beer. Brewers trying to produce higher alcohol beers use more malt to produce more sugar, which is then broken down into alcohol.
‘“As you go up in alcohol content, the beer has much more depth,’” Christoffel said. ‘“The ester processes really get more interesting.’” Some breweries around the country also produce a high-alcohol barley wine, which is served in smaller portions and treated much more like traditional wine than beer, Christoffel said.
At Natty Greene’s the high-alcohol beer will always be sold under the label Scott’s Honest Ale or specially marked on the board. Red Oak will sell it in batches limited to about a hundred kegs.
‘“We have a market for the beers we already make,’” Thorn said. ‘“We’re not in an experimental phase. Red Oak marketing high-alcohol beers would be like War Bomb writing a rap-metal song.’”
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