The removal of Ohio's alcohol limit for beers lets Columbus breweries flex their muscles.

The removal of Ohio's alcohol limit for beers lets Columbus breweries flex their muscles.

At 12:00 a.m. on Wednesday, August 31, 2016, a few bars around Columbus tapped kegs of Dogfish Head's 120 Minute IPA. A minute earlier and they would have broken the law.

Last May the Ohio House voted to approve HB 37, a bill eliminating the 12 percent alcohol-by-volume (ABV) cap on beers brewed or sold in Ohio. Sipping the 120 Minute IPA was a symbolic gesture; the 15 percent ABV brew represented all the higher alcohol beers that couldn't be legally procured or served in Ohio, and with the new law, cases and kegs of it could now flood the state.

Since the cap was removed, most Columbus breweries haven't rushed to create boozy beers, as high-alcohol brews require more base materials to craft and tie up fermenters for longer periods. Jason McKibben, brewmaster at North High Brewing, says it's difficult concentrating the wort (the "beer tea" made from boiling malted barley) to produce enough sugar for yeast to consume (and thus, provide increased alcohol levels). He encountered the challenges when brewing a monster imperial IPA this fall.

"It's a complicated project to get beer to go that high," he says. "Your typical yeast strains don't want to do that kind of work. You end up pitching way more than normal; we had to use Champagne yeast to finish the beer."

McKibben actually produced two batches of his IPA and combined the first wort, the strongest part of the wort, from each one into a single batch.

Jim Gokenbach, co-owner of Zaftig Brewing, likens high-alcohol beers to a sauce reduction. Zaftig's Ol' Rugger Russian imperial stout, a 16 percent ABV beast, had to boil for four hours in the kettle. "That's all our equipment can handle," he says. "We fill the mash tun with grain, and by the time the boil is done, we only get about six barrels. It's labor- and ingredient-intensive. And it's easy to ruin a beer so it's not servable, and then you've lost a lot of money."

If high-alcohol beers are so high maintenance, then what's the appeal in brewing them? What the new law offers is room to breathe. "We're excited about any rule change that gives more creativity to brewers," says Larry Horwitz, brewmaster at Four String Brewing. "Artificial restrictions on alcohol limits don't line up with modern brewing."

"It's nice to not have to worry about the alcohol cap," added Fred Lee, owner of Actual Brewing Company. "I don't know how many beers we've tested in our lab that were over 12 percent that we had to say, 'Fix it. We can't sell it.'" Brewers would then water down the beer or blend it with other brews to lower the total alcohol percentage.

The updated law allows brewers room to play, especially when it comes to barrel-aged beers that soak up alcohol from their containers. "We're not trying to break some 12 percent record," Lee says, "but we're definitely not going to pull punches anymore." Actual Brewing is planning a party this month, during which it will release its Bourbon Barrel Fat Julian at 17.5 percent and two Brett-style beers that toe the line. The point is, Lee and his team won't have to adjust the beers if they finish above the old limit.

Zaftig-the name is Yiddish for "full-bodied"-has perhaps benefited the most from the cap's removal. Its brews were bumping up against the ABV ceiling as it was, but now Zaftig brewers no longer have to worry about breaking the law. The weekend after HB 37 went into effect they tapped a keg of 16 percent Russian imperial stout. Zaftig's Big Barleywine can now comfortably settle in at 13 percent, while its flagship Too Cans Imperial IPA easily closes in on 14 percent.

Other breweries are following suit, usually with beers whose bolder flavors can temper the bite of higher alcohol. Four String, for instance, is working on a barleywine that's been aging for over a year and several bourbon barrel-aged beers.

Scotland's BrewDog plans to launch its new Canal Winchester brewery next year with an infamous brew called The End of History. The beer clocks in at an astounding 55 percent ABV, putting it on par with distilled spirits. It's created through a special process in which they freeze the wort to leech out extra water and concentrate the resulting liquid. The beer comes with a price: You'll need to invest $20,000 or more in BrewDog's shareholding program, Equity For Punks, in order to taste it.