ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The strongest beer in the world

One Easter, way back when I was but a callow and impressionable teenager, my father gave me, instead of an egg, a bottle of Kulmbacher EKU 28. 'The strongest beer in the world', he said, and it probably was back then.

At the time, I was very interested in world records and just beginning my journey of discovery into the beeriverse, so this was an item much revered and awed until the time came to drink it. The Robert Wadlow of beer.

Truth be told, I didn't enjoy it all that much, but at least I could say I'd tried the strongest beer in the world and wouldn't need to have it again. Ever.

Except that a couple of years later I found out about Schloss Eggenberg 'Samichlaus', which - at 14% ABV - was even stronger than EKU. Again, it was widely reckoned to be the strongest in the world at the time; again, I tried a single bottle, and, again, I wasn't very impressed.

That was nearly two decades ago, but I'm still not particularly keen on doppelbocks and other super-strength lager type beers. Too sweet, too malty, nowhere near enough hops for my liking.

And to the breweries producing weapons-grade beers these days, a piddling 14% is basically less alcoholic than water. Water, I say!

The ultimate pissing contest

Over the last five years or so we've witnessed an arms race in the brewing industry. The record for the strongest beer in the world has been set and re-set so many times that I've long since given up trying to experience them. (While all this time Robert Wadlow has stubbornly refused to let anybody grow taller than him!)

67.5% alcohol... or is it?!?
Beers at 15-18% became almost normal, and then they started freezing them during fermentation to get well North of 20%. It all went a bit mad when Brewdog swiftly followed up Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32%) with 'Sink the Bismark' (41%) and then finally, The End of History (55%), of which only 12 bottles were released, stuffed inside various dead animals.

The gimmickry put me off, and it preceded Brewdog's unfortunate descent into insufferable twattishness.

(I've tried draught Brodies 'Elizabethan' - at 22% the strongest cask beer ever brewed - and as none of the breweries involved in the industrial-strength pissing contest seem particularly interested in cask, I suspect this record might last a long time, which is fine with me.)

The record will probably be broken again within a few weeks - quite possibly by something new from Brewdog or the German brewery Schorschbräu - but, as of now, the strongest beer in the whole world is Brewmeister 'Snake Venom', at an almost incomprehensible 67.5% ABV.

Only available in half-pint(ish) bottles, with a warning label attached, and retailing at an equally eye-watering £50, it's not so much an everyday tipple as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But I'm the sort of fellow that likes to have once-in-a-lifetime experiences every day.

FFS Ben, have you actually drunk this stuff or what?!?

So... the other day, my father belatedly followed up the EKU episode by announcing that he'd acquired a bottle of the Snake Venom, and would I like to come round and sample it.

Given that it's three times as strong as any beer I've had before and on a par with cask-strength whisky, it just had to be done. And we're both beer writers after all.

So, what's it like?

Well, initially I got Worcestershire sauce on the nose, followed by a hint of maple syrup, though it wasn't as sweet as I expected or feared. And, despite minimal carbonation, it definitely felt like a beer, rather than a whisky as one might expect at this sort of outrageous strength.

Swirl it around...
The mouthfeel is thick but not sticky, somewhere between tawny port and gravy, and when you get down to the more sedimenty end of the bottle it's like a semi-emulsified salad dressing in texture.

There are rounded toffee notes, and, in the finish, a very balanced hoppiness, like you'd find in an American Barley wine. It's not overly sweet, actually rather easy to drink, and on the whole fairly pleasant. Unassuming, even.

The thing is, I don't actually believe that it's 67.5%. Not a word of it.

I've drunk just about every different kind of alcoholic drink imaginable ranging from the weakest mild ales all the way up to neat Spirytus Rektyfikowany (96%).

I know what a 5% beer feels like in the mouth and I know the ways in which a 10% beer, or a 14% wine or a 30% liqueur or a 45% spirit differs from it. I can guesstimate - pretty accurately I think - how strong my drink is.

Some weeks back, I had a pint in the Catford Bridge Tavern that had 4.4% written on the pumpclip.

It's not the sort of pub that usually makes mistakes, and I'd never had this beer before, but I was convinced after a single mouthful that it was a lot stronger, so I Googled the beer on the bus to the next pub, and it turned out that Offbeat 'Grateful Deaf' was actually 6.5%. Hah! Knew it!

And this Snake Venom felt like something in the low 20s. A vintage port, maybe. I was sipping slowly, treating it with respect in the glass because of the strength, but it really was a lot smoother and easier to sup than anything I've ever drunk at 40%, let alone 67.5%.

I know it's not always so clear-cut. I know that an American Double IPA at 10% will go down a hell of a lot easier than a sweet old ale at the same strength. I know that Austrian Stroh 80% rum doesn't taste twice as strong as the 40% version.

But I'm still completely unconvinced that this stuff is 67.5%. There was no burn, no evaporation, no toxic fumes marauding up my nostrils like Genghis Khan.

So I'm tempted to call shenanighans on this whole beer arms race. At least until I see some sort of laboratory evidence.

And I look forward to next week when Brewdog bring out their new 99.9% ABV beer, matured for 40 years in Robert Wadlow's skull.


  1. You're way behind the times. BrewDog gave up that pish ages ago: http://www.brewdog.com/blog-article/the-battle-to-brew-the-worlds-strongest-ever-beer

  2. Sorry I meant to say ages before you wrote this.


Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.