Brewed to make your head spin

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The quest to brew the World’s Strongest Beer – a feat that probably ranks up there with the discovery of penicillin and the first broadcast of Monday Night Football – is over for 1999.

The winner: Boston Beer Co.’s Samuel Adams Millennium, a mind-numbing 20 percenter.

This is bittersweet news in my book.

Hitting two-oh is an admirable achievement and I can’t wait till someone offers me a sip. But as much as I admire Jim Koch’s brewery for its extreme beers, hearing the news about Millennium was a little like watching the Yankees win yet another pennant.

Boston Beer, the largest of the nation’s craft brewers, has sat atop the charts for several years, since the introduction of its port-like Samuel Adams Triple Bock (17.5 percent). Moreover, Koch had ample resources to turn out this brew; his team of brewers went through an astounding 26 trial batches before it hit gold.

The result is as much of a marketing ploy as a salute to the brewers’ remarkable efforts. And at $200 for 750 ml (about 25 ounces), the brew – even if it does come in cobalt blue with platinum paint – is way out of Joe Sixpack’s league.

As usual, I was pulling for the underdog. In this case, it was Dogfish Head, the Lewes, Del., micro. It took a stab with its World Wide Stout, but at 18 percent, it came up short by just a few drops of alcohol per bottle.

Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione threw in the towel last week when he sent me a bottle of his stout.

“Our hats are off to them,” he said.

For many drinkers, high-alcohol beer is an oxymoron. Beer is the refreshing stuff you drink after raking leaves. At 4 to 5 percent alcohol, it’s a bracer. Pound a couple sixers, you might be silly; but if you want to go for a serious spin, you usually reach for something hard: a Jack Daniels, a VO, a Stoli, a spirit that’s 40 percent alcohol (80 proof) or more.

So why do brewers push the alcohol in our favorite malt beverage?

Some (and I’m thinking of el cheapo malt-liquor producers here) are just feeding a well-established market of serious boozehounds. By adding corn sugar, they can boost the alcohol in a tasteless factory-made lager by 50 percent and still sell the stuff for two bucks a 40. It’s mostly crap, but it does the job.

For craft brewers, pushing the alcohol content is more of a challenge. Their recipes, packed with huge quantities of malt and hops, test the limits of yeast. Usually, those little buggers poop out after they reach the 15 percent range. Forcing yeast to continue fermentation toward 18 to 20 percent is a worthy feat.

I’m not suggesting that craft-brewing is a purely academic exercise. As Caligione happily notes, “After you’ve had a few sips, we highly recommend that you stay clear of any instance in which you would need to operate heavy machinery.”

At $89 for a case of 12-ouncers, though, this is a beer to be sipped and savored

Beer radar

Ortlieb Brewing has released its first new Dock Street flavors since it bought the label earlier this year. Docktoberfest, a Marzen-style, is on the shelves for autumn. Britannic, a brown ale, will be in stores by next week. Both are available on tap at Poor Henry’s Brewpub (829 N. American St.) .

Oktoberfests are drying up and holiday beers are starting to show up. McMenamin’s (7170 Germantown Ave.) was already on its second keg of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale when I stopped in last week. Soon to follow: Anchor Our Special Ale ’99.

Joe Sixpack, written this week with a glass of Ayinger Dunkel, appears every other Friday.

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