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I have read stories about people brewing beer with an extremely high alcohol content, and am curious about how they do it.

At a basic level, I know that alcohol is a byproduct of yeast breaking down sugars, but how can you increase the alcohol content of your brew without ruining the flavor? Virtually all of my recipes turn out around 5%-7% ABV. Is increasing that number just a matter of adding certain kinds of sugar? How does it change the flavor of the beer?

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

Most of those ridiculously high ABV beers have been ice-distilled (some multiple times). Supposedly it's technically illegal for homebrewers since it's distilling, but it's basically just cooling the beer to the point where some of the water freezes and removing the ice.

You can get pretty decent ABVs (12%+) without resorting to that though. You'll need a strain of yeast that can handle the high level of alcohol, otherwise it will die off before it converts all the sugars. I've had good results with Scottish Ale and Trappist High Gravity strains.

As for the sugars, you don't have to add "sugar," you could get everything you need from the malt. If you're all-grain, you just use a lot more and maybe only use the "first runnings" or collect twice as much as you need and boil it down to your target size. With extract recipes, you can usually get away with just adding a lot more extract to your boil. You can add it towards the end of the boil if you're concerned about darkening or scorching. That said, you can always throw some sugar in to up the gravity. I prefer the less processed varieties like turbanado or "raw" sugar.

Be prepared for a longer-than-normal and very active primary.

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Keep in mind that if you add regular sugar you will thin the body out. –  Matt Utley Nov 10 '10 at 5:07
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Adding too much sucrose can result in cidery off-flavors as well. –  Jeff L Nov 10 '10 at 6:03
    
Both true, which is why I like to get most of my sugar from the malt. But I have gone as high as 15% of the grain + sugar weight in turbanado in a big Barleywine without noticeable problems. –  Nicholas Trandem Nov 10 '10 at 16:00
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WLP099 may be considered for super high ABV beers...it restarted fermentation on a beer I made and finished at 14% ABV. –  Dale Sep 13 at 16:40

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