Beer Guide: Local brewers take advantage of bill removing restrictions on high ABV brews

Jim Fischer

Taste first. Creativity second. ABV somewhere after that.

Columbus craft brewers interviewed byAlive universally lauded the recent measure passed by state lawmakers to lift the 12 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) limit on beers made and sold in Ohio. Almost all the brewers also said they wouldn't brew a beer solely to take advantage of the new law.

"It's not something we were planning to do right away," Wolf's Ridge Brewing Head Brewer Chris Davison said of topping 12 percent ABV. "We want our beers to produce as clean a profile as possible. We don't want it to be like rocket fuel. But it does give us the opportunity to build a beer to put [in] a [bourbon] barrel for an extended period of time and tease at some of the aging benefits."

And if that barrel-aged beer did happen to come in above 12 percent ABV? "I'd be glad not to have to dilute or lose it," Davison said.

House Bill 37, which proposed doing away with any ABV limit, was passed earlier this year and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich in May. The bill also requires the label on any beer exceeding 12 percent ABV to indicate that the beverage is high in alcohol content. The law will take effect Aug. 29.

Sideswipe Brewing Owner and Brewer Craig O'Herron said doing away with the ABV limit opens up more creative outlets for brewers. "I don't personally care for [high-alcohol beers]," he said, "but it's silly to say you can't make them. Now you can say that taste, for sure, guides a brewer and not the [ABV limit]."

"The thing we're absolutely not going to do is try to out-booze everyone," Actual Brewing Company CEO/Brewer Jonathan Carroll said. "It's nice to not sweat it if we, for example, put [imperial stout] Fat Julian in a bourbon barrel. When we did a test, [the ABV was] just under 12 percent. If it had come in over, we would have had to dilute it."

"To date, the biggest beer we've brewed is 10 percent," Land-Grant Brewing Company President Adam Benner said. "We never target an ABV and brew to it. With that said, we thought it was a silly law and look forward to brewing bigger and more challenging beers without any fear of breaking an archaic law."

"We are working on a couple things - nothing out of this world - but to see what our yeast is capable of," Seventh Son Brewing Co-owner Collin Castore said. "We have a 12 percent stout, so maybe we'll see if we can go a little past that. It's a fun thing for people to experiment with recipes and see what they can get out of their beers."

Scottish brewery BrewDog, which will open its U.S. headquarters in Canal Winchester later this year, and which has built a reputation for trying experimental and novelty brews, is fully behind the restriction lift, as you might imagine.

"At BrewDog, we strive to push the boundaries in brewing as much as possible when it comes to our beers, so being unrestricted is awesome," Co-founder James Watt said. "We have a history of creating high ABV brews, and we believe beer should be able to be as big, bold and badass as it needs to be.It's not just about making beers that pack a massive punch, butexperimentingwith different beer styles and brewing processes to make something exciting, without necessarilyfocusingon the alcohol content."

Part of the impetus for the change in the law was to benefit shops and consumers of bottled and canned beers from other states. Brewers pointed out that neighboring states, including Michigan and Kentucky, do not have an ABV restriction, and some Ohio residents would cross state lines to purchase higher ABV beers there.

"Forget about Ohio brewers for a second. There are many options that Ohio drinkers are driving out of state for," Actual's Carroll said. "It was a silly law to begin with."

Wolf's Ridge's Davison said he's just as excited about the lack of an ABV cap as a beer drinker as he is a brewer. "There is a lot of good stuff I couldn't get [in Ohio]," he said.

"There are some beers made outside of Ohio that are much sought-after," Sideswipe's O'Herron said. "For consumers, it's great."

Columbus City Councilman Michael Stinziano was serving in the 18th Ohio House District when he co-sponsored House Bill 37 in 2015. "That district has the largest number of craft brewers in the state. They came to us and we listened," Stinziano said. "It keeps local entrepreneurial brewers competitive with folks in other states and provides an opportunity for individuals to further their craft."

"I testified at the Statehouse a couple times" during hearings on House Bill 37, Seventh Son's Castore said. "Our brewers and stores were at a competitive disadvantage."

The Columbus Craft Beer Alliance, a nonprofit group that supports and promotes Columbus-area breweries, is excited about the freedom House Bill 37 gives to brewers.

"We're happy that our local breweries will have the opportunity to compete with breweries in neighboring states without feeling limited in what they can brew," Columbus Craft Beer Alliance Co-founder Laura Oldham said. "We love that each brewery in Columbus has a very distinct personality, and we're excited to see how each takes advantage of this chance to express themselves more freely in their beers."

Seventh Son's Castore said he hopes to have something pushing the old limit by September, but he stopped short of assuring the timeline. "We're still playing around with it," he said. "It's great to experiment, but it's all about the flavor and the style."

Actual Brewing Brewer Zach Harper said bourbon barrel aging is one technique brewers will use that will test the 12 percent ABV mark.

"Barrel-aged stuff is what's going to push it," he said. "We made a sour stout in a wine barrel that came out at 11.8 percent. We made 100 bottles and they were gone in an hour and a half. There's definitely a market for it. [High ABV beers] have a strong following but often limited. They are your true believers."

"There can be a trend to bigger, crazier, weirder, but we rebel against that," Sideswipe's O'Herron said. "That said, we make an 11 percent imperial stout that, if we should bourbon barrel age, we don't have to worry if we go a little over.

"These are going to have to be big-flavored beers or they're just going to taste like alcohol," he said. "There's a real challenge to balance the flavors at a higher ABV."

"If we wanted to brew a bigger beer like an imperial stout," Land-Grant's Benner said, "it is better to have the freedom to brew the recipe we intended and not have to cut it back."

"I get excited about barrel aging," Wolf's Ridge's Davison said. "Maybe we'll look at starting something this winter to have available next year."

"Big beers are time-consuming and labor-intensive," Actual's Harper said, perhaps indicating another reason why brewers aren't jumping at the chance to test the old limit right away.

Because these higher ABV "big beers" often require more time and effort on the part of the brewer, they are most often priced accordingly.

"Higher ABV beers are served in smaller glasses and priced to prevent over-consumption," Davison of Wolf's Ridge said. "I expect they'll be more successful in bottles, where you can buy one, take it home and share it."

Sour, an emerging brew style among crafters, as well as American barley wine, are styles that will also likely come in above 12 percent, Seventh Son's Castore said.

"I'm very eager to see what other brewers are going to try," Sideswipe's O'Herron said.