Brewdog Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32%)

<< 2009-12-17 08:41 >>

Getting started

When I saw that Dr. Jekyll's Pub in Oslo was arranging a tasting with Brewdog, featuring their Tactical Nuclear Penguin beer, the world's strongest at 32%, I knew I had to go. Unsurprisingly, so did Knut Albert (his blog posting is here) and Geir Ove. The tasting was given by James Watt, who is responsible for Brewdog's marketing.

They had a line-up of six beers for us to try, of which I'd already tried the first four. These were:

All of these are very good beers that I'd be happy to drink any time. My favourite would probably have to be the Riptide, although at that strength it's obviously not a session beer, but more of a sipper.

I was really curious about the fifth, Nanny State, as it was their weakest ever beer at 1%, and yet also the most bitter (theoretically at 200 IBU). It's really a stunt beer, done to make a point, after Tokyo* (at 18%) was banned by the Portman Group. James said they'd put in no less than 7 kinds of dark malts in order to fill out the body as much as possible at 1%, but even so it's a thin, dry beer totally dominated by hop aroma and bitterness. James described it as "hop tea" and that really summarizes it fairly well. The malt presence is barely detectable, making for an interesting experience, but this is really even less of a session beer than Riptide. (And much less enjoyable, I'd argue.)

Finally, we were ready to tackle the Penguin. Each bottle comes in a brown paper wrapping (highly appropriate!) with a hand-drawn penguin on it. Inside the bottle has the normal Brewdog look, with a label similar to those in the Paradox series.

James Watt speaking

The beer is really just a 10% imperial stout, stored for 8 months in Isle of Arran whisky casks, and then another 8 months in Islay whisky casks. At this point it was a beer ready to fit right into the Paradox series of whisky-cask stored beers. However, instead, they drove some of it to a local ice cream factory where it was frozen several times over three weeks. Each time, the frozen water was removed, leaving behind sugar, alcohol, hop oils, and all the taste. So each freezing simply concentrates the remaining beer more.

Beer is normally defined as an undistilled alcoholic drink made from fermented grain, but this method of distillation has historically been common with a type of strong German bocks called Eisbocks (ice bocks). Because these generally get no stronger than about 10%, because of the historical tradition, and because so much of the beer is left behind when you remove the ice, beers distilled by freezing tend to still be regarded as beer.

The normal method of distillation, used to produce whisky, cognac and so on, is through heating, where the alcoholic vapour is captured through condensation. The Germans actually distill beer in this way, too, and call the result bierbrand. Bierbrand generally is about 40% alcohol. This method of distillation really changes the nature of the drink fundamentally, and so bierbrand tends not to be regarded as beer, but more akin to liqueur or whisky.

So is the Penguin really the world's strongest beer? I can't say I really care that much, but personally I don't think so. Once you've distilled the beer then it's no longer beer in my book. And even if you consider it beer, it still shouldn't be compared for strength with undistilled beers. If you do allow freeze distillation, then, yes, it is the strongest, for now.

But what does it taste like? Well, the comparison with whisky is really quite apt. For one thing, it's dominated by the same intense alcohol bite and aroma. For another, the smoky peatiness of the whisky casks comes through as well. The freezing really has concentrated it, giving it a dense syrupy mouthfeel. But underneath all that one can still make out the flavour of the original Imperial Stout: salty, roasty, earthy, and chocolatey. The aftertaste is surprisingly bitter and smoky.

Overall, I thought it was quite good, but too dominated by the alcohol to really be a beer in the conventional sense of the term. I'm not too fond of strong alcohol, and so while I could certainly drink this again I wouldn't do so very often. It is a quite good drink, but something I'd only try on rare occasions.

Even so, I'm happy to have tried this, and glad that Brewdog made this "beer", as it's an interesting experiment and definitely worth trying. For those of you intrigued by this posting, however, I have bad news. They made only 500 bottles, and they are only sold in two off-licenses. One is in London (and I don't know where), while the other is in Edinburgh (and I think it's fair to guess that it must be Cornelius).

The Penguin

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Tomas Kliegr - 2010-01-09 06:54:56

By comparison, the Prague's X-33 beer claims to be the strongest beer in Europe, but it has "mere" 12.6 percent of alcohol. Nevertheless, if you want to give it a try, you can get X33 at the U Medvidku pub, where they brew it. It is dark, sold in 0.33 bottles, sweet and perhaps not as tasty as other Czech beers.

By Czech standards it is very expensive at 3 Euro a bottle.

Some links

Lars Marius - 2010-01-09 08:19:39

I did actually buy a bottle of X33 at U Medviku when I was in Prague in March. Like you, I thought perhaps other Czech beers (like Oldgott) were better. It was really too sweet for me.

When the brewery calls it "the world's strongest beer", I think they do like German Kulmbacher (makers of EKU 28) and Vetter (makers of Vetter 33), and consider strength in terms of original gravity (sugar content before fermentation) rather than in terms of alcohol.

If I remember correctly I liked X33 better than Vetter 33, and EKU 28 better than either of those.

Laurent Mousson - 2010-01-11 06:34:32

The offie in London is UtoBeer, the beer stall at Borough Market, open Thursday to Saturday.

Dave in USA - 2010-01-29 10:29:50

I was surprised to read about this beer as 'strongest in the world' as I recently read that the Boston Beer Company (brewer of Samuel Adams lager) held a record at 27% alcohol, and were selling it for $150 USD/bottle. Their beer is brewed at this ABV, not distilled like Penguin or others.

Lars Marius - 2010-01-29 10:52:42

@Dave: I think a strong case could be made for Utopias still being the world's strongest. It depends on the definition of "strongest", of course, but I'd say both points of view are reasonable. Personally I'd tend to side with those who favour non-distilled beers.

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