What the Brewmaster Said

On Quora, somebody recently ask: “How much alcohol does beer contain?”, and I replied as follows:

It depends on what the brewer intended. As has been noted, most popular beers are designed with an alcohol content of between 4 and 6 percent in mind, but there are specialty beers that top out at 7.5 percent or more. In Germany, these are called “Starkbier”. In Belgium, Duvel Barrel Aged is rated at 11.5%.

I once spent a nice afternoon in Weihenstephan by Munich at the beer garden operated for centuries by what is now State Brewers‘ academy of the Technical University, the traditional training center for future Bavarian brewmasters. I bought a liter mug of starkbier and settled down to enjoy myself. A second mug followed, and as I was wobbling back with my third, I noticed a group of portly gentlemen in shirtsleeves at a nearby table obviously enjoying their lunchbreak.

They kept nudging each other and gesturing in my direction until, finally, one of them came over and apologized. He introduced himself of one of the teaching staff, observed that I had surely noticed they were talking about me, and asked me if I knew exactly what I was drinking? “No”, I replied, “but it’s pretty damn good!”

He sat down and explained to me that students at the brewing university are required to experiment with ways to prolong the fermentation process. Normally, fermentation stops when the single-celled microorganisms called yeasts that break the sugar in the mash down into alcohol and carbon monoxide reach a level that is toxic to the yeasts themselves. Beer, when all is said and done, is yeast shit mixed with water. Think environmental pollution: If we keep poisoning our surroundings, one day we, too, will perish.

Anyway, the budding brewers use cooling or pressure fermenting to see just how far they can go. Afterwards, the stuff is virtually unsellable, so they often turn it over to their colleagues who run the beer garden. I asked him how much alcohol it contained, and he shrugged. “Anywhere between 13 and 20 percent”, he said.

I have often asked myself if he was pulling my leg in typical Bavarian humor fashion. I mean: What would the authorities say if one of Bavaria’s most famous beer gardens is selling what essentially amounts to an unlicensed alcoholic beverage?

Anyway, that’s what he told me, and who am I to doubt the word of a brewmaster with a belly as big as one of his own barrels?

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