Ale at Altitude: Pints from the past make way for big beers |

Ale at Altitude: Pints from the past make way for big beers

Matt Thrall
Ale at Altitude
Vail, CO, Colorado

Big beers have graced the tables of common folk and royalty for centuries. While beer historians may quibble over which was the first big beer, many consider the “doppelbock” to be the world’s first recognized style of big beer.

The monks of Saint Francis of Paula began brewing big beer in the mid-1600s with the first public release in 1751. They used more malt than normal to intensify the regular bock style and used it as “liquid bread” during the Lent fasting period.

The next big beer rendition emerged in England in the late 1790s with the Thrale’s Entire (porter), known today as Russian Imperial Stout. This beer was made “to keep seven years” for the Empress of Russia and the Czarist court. In order to survive the harsh winter climate of the North and the arduous export from England to Russia, more malt was added to the regular stout recipe, as well as more hops to balance the sweetness of the malt and alcohol.

Today’s beer drinkers can thank the craft beer movement for bringing a multitude of both traditional and entirely new big beer styles into the marketplace. Anchor Brewing led the charge with the release of Old Foghorn in 1975 and Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot and Rogue’s Old Crustacean followed soon after. The American palate learned to appreciate the bold flavors of a classic English-style barleywine, a malt beer named for its high alcohol levels and not because it uses grapes.

Shortly thereafter a multitude of traditional big beer styles, ranging from the centuries-old doppelbocks and imperial stouts to postmodern examples such as double saisons and imperial pilsners, started popping up across the country. Now, almost all of the craft brewers in the country have at least one big beer in their lineup, if not several.

Avery Brewing Co.’s first venture into the realm of big beers was in 1998 with Hog Heaven Barleywine, another fine example of an English malt structure dominated by hops. Quickly following in the portfolio were two traditional Belgian-influenced big beers, The Reverend Belgian-Style Quadrupel Ale and Salvation Belgian-Style Golden Ale, to create the Holy Trinity of Ales. There are also a great many other big beers by established breweries in Colorado including Widdershins by Left Hand, Yeti by Great Divide, Ten Fidy by Oskar Blues and Myrcenary by Odell Brewing.

So what is a big beer? A big beer is typically any beer that packs more than 8.5 percent alcohol by volume. Known for its alcohol kick, flavor, aroma and bitterness, big beers are processed like regular beers, but they are fermented for a longer period of time to allow the yeast to metabolize the extra amount of barley, malt and sugars. Instead of the typical two-week turnaround for most ale beers, a big beer can take four weeks or more to fully mature in a fermentation vessel before it can be packaged. It is this extra vessel time, and of course healthy yeast, that is the key to making big beers.

While there have been many fads in the beer industry and many naysayers doubting the longevity of such extreme styles of beer, history sides with big beer and it looks like the next few centuries are looking pretty strong.

Matt “Handtruck” Thrall is head brewer and general know-it-all at Avery Brewing Co. Email comments about this column to

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