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Why High ABV Beers Are so Expensive

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We took a look into why high ABV beers are so expensive, and with the help of some local hard-hitters we came up with a few good reasons. Turns out it’s a mixture of unique flavors, limited quantities, and definitely a little hype too.

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Drinking craft beer is truly an experience. It’s a mix of the venue, the can design, the people you’re with, and, obviously, the beer itself.

One of the beer trends that doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention is the sometimes shock-inducing pricing of high ABV beers.

We’re talking about beers that come in at 11% and up.

The demand for them seems to be growing steadily despite costs. My trade partners are always asking about them, so I’m muling more of these lately, but what’s driving it?

We’ve taken a look into pricing before, but this time we took a look specifically into why high ABV beers are so expensive, and with the help of some local hard-hitters we came up with a few good reasons. Turns out it’s a mixture of unique flavors, limited quantities, and definitely a little hype too.

They come across as “fancier,” and they have small batch sizes, so bottles don’t last long on the shelves.

You might be thinking, “More ABV in my beer means more bang for my buck,” and that could drive sales.

But the co-founder of Victory Brewing Company, Bill Covaleski, disagrees.

“It’s not the strength of the beer that determines the higher profit margin – it’s the uniqueness of the beer and the presentation.”

Achieving such a high ABV means a lengthier brewing process, resulting in a higher cost to the consumer. In the same way foeder beers need more time to age, and this additional time in tanks costs money, high ABV beers have more in their price tag than additional ingredients. Add in barrel-aging, and the process takes even longer, hence an even higher price tag.

They also come in smaller packaging. Instead of the 22 oz. bombers or 750ml bottles you’re used to, high ABV beers come in reduced bottle sizes. 330ml or 500ml are more common.

Yet, the premium prices and unique bottles don’t seem to be turning away many people.

There is clearly a lot involved with putting together high-alcohol brews.

Locally, Ingenious is one of the leaders in the game. According to Untappd, they have (hang on, still scrolling…), wow, a LOT of beers with an ABV of at least 11%.

Not only are they good at the big beers, but they’re also great at collaborating with other breweries, especially those who win at the big ABV game like Turning Point Beer in Bedford.

Ingenious and Turning Point have collaborated on several beers in the past, including Point Mutation, Double Froyo Pulp, and Fruit with Friends (Blueberry Bramble). So, there’s a lot of experience between the two.

Since we design Ingenious’ labels, we’ve got a good enough relationship with them to ask some probing questions. Justin Gyorfi, one of the co-founders of Ingenious, was kind enough to answer all of our questions and put us in touch with a friend of Ingenious, Alex Knight, Turning Point’s co-founder, and head brewer.

With the help of these two high-ABV-brewing legends, we put together four facts about brewing and packaging these dignity-defying beers.

High ABV beers require extra steps in the brewing process.

Yeast health and application are critical when working at this level.

Turning Point monitors the health of their yeast very carefully for production, especially for their big beers. Plus, they use a lot more yeast when brewing them too.

“We pitch roughly two times the amount of yeast for the big beers than our normal beers,” explained Alex.

That’s a lot to monitor!

Since many of their high ABV beers are also barrel aged (up to 18 months in some cases), oxidation is a concern. When beer gets exposed to oxygen, it can create a wide variety of off-flavors, none of which are pleasant.

To help reduce the possibility of oxidation, Alex aims for a slight active fermentation in their barrels.

Alex and his team aim for an SG of 1.004-1.008. SG, OG, FG, and Triple OG’s are all a bit complex for the nature of this conversation, but we’ll double back to this topic in a future article.

Stay tuned…

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Adjuncts work differently, too.

Much like their yeast levels, Turning Point has to increase the quantity of adjuncts used as well.

“On our non-barrel pastry stouts, we use about 1/2# per bbl of Madagascar vanilla beans, but for BA stouts, we are using upwards of 1.25#-1.5# per bbl to get the same flavor to come through,” Alex told us.

The brewery uses many different adjuncts in their high ABV beers, including coffee, coconut, and cacao nibs.

Regardless of what they add to the beers, it takes a lot more to get the flavors to come through.

Bottle selection looks a little different than you might expect.

When probing about why high abv beers are so expensive, one of the biggest questions we had for Justin and Alex centered on packaging these big monsters.

Why are these huge beers offered in significantly smaller quantities? Bigger… yet smaller? Why tho?

Turns out the answer probably isn’t what you expect.

“Initially, we packaged our BA stouts in 750ml bottles and we had a large number of consumers tell us it was too much volume for them,” said Alex.

Even for sharing, 750ml of a 16% beer is too much.

Once they changed to the 500ml size, their customers were much happier and actually said they would buy MORE bottles!

So it was customer-driven…interesting.

As an added bonus, their bottling line is better suited for 500ml bottles, which makes packaging more efficient.

Justin agrees completely.

“The higher the ABV, the better sales are and the more you charge (more ingredients). Plus, the lower the quantity needed to satisfy a patron.”

This is why you don’t see a 6% beer in a 500ml bottle, for example.

Ingenious has also started bottling their high ABV beers in the 500ml size as of this year, which has worked out especially well on the barrel aging side.

Justin told us, “Filling [barrels] with a high gravity stout and bottling at lower volume nets you more bottles which helps cut costs.”

Barrels aren’t cheap so saving costs is a huge win.

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Texas has restrictions on ABV levels in beer. Lame.

This is something we didn’t know and it sucks.

Sure, the market on 20% beers is SUPER limited but having restrictions in brewing isn’t fun.

Turning Point isn’t bothered by this though.

“In Texas, no brewery can produce beer over 17% ABV. We have come close (16.4% ABV) but have enjoyed keeping our BA stouts in the 15-16% range,” said Alex.

The brewery had originally been brewing in the 13-14% range. However, they noticed that the depth and complexity of their beers increased at higher ABVs.

Until the laws changed, Turning Point is happy in their 16% sweet spot. But should things change, Alex said he’d be interested in experimenting at 18% and up.

I know we’re down for that too.

High ABV beers are beasts in their own right. They’re potent, flavorful, and brewed in a more precise way, so that’s a big part of why high ABV beers are more expensive.

They also come in smaller packages and at higher prices, but neither seems to be a hindrance to sales.

We certainly love them and have enjoyed many from Ingenious and Turning Point.

Their availability and uniqueness make them irresistible.

What are some of your favorites? Let us know and let’s swap notes.

Beers to you, Houston.


Brent is originally from Ohio but has been in Houston for over 10 years. As an Aggie, musician, animal advocate, and Lego collector, he always has something going on. If you have an imperial stout, come find him. He’ll want to add it to his insatiable beer spreadsheet.


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Brent Topa
brent.topa@beerchronicle.com

Brent is originally from Ohio but has been in Houston for over 10 years. As an Aggie, musician, animal advocate, and Lego collector, he always has something going on. If you have an imperial stout, come find him. He'll want to add it to his insatiable beer spreadsheet.

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