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Drink it in: A refresher course in the alcohol levels in beer

In celebratiAmerican Craft Beer Week just time for Father's Day 2011 batch Samuel Adams Utopias(R) has been released.  At

In celebration of American Craft Beer Week and just in time for Father's Day, the 2011 batch of Samuel Adams Utopias(R) has been released. At 27 percent alcohol by volume, Jim Koch's groundbreaking barrel-aged beer is hand-bottled in numbered, ceramic brew kettle-shaped decanters and is available at select bars and retailers for a limited time at a suggested retail price of $150. (PRNewsFoto/Samuel Adams)

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Updated: June 10, 2012 8:03AM

About a decade ago, when the much-heralded “world’s strongest beer” premiered, I tracked down a bottle and invited friends over to try it. We made small talk before we took our seats, as if we were about to engage in important work. We were ready to step into uncharted beer lands but also ready to do some beer drinking. You know what I mean? Beer drinking.

The beer was called Utopias and had been brewed by the Boston Beer Company. I’m still not sure why we didn’t take brewer Jim Koch’s word for it when he told the world his new beer would taste more like port, sherry or Cognac than his famous Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Utopias clocked in around 25 percent alcohol and Koch said it would go better with rich cheeses than salty pretzels.

Koch was right. The stuff tasted nothing like beer. It was only beer because of how it had been made and what had been used to make it. It was only beer “technically,” the way a piano is technically a percussion instrument but doesn’t look or sound like any drum you know.

Years before Utopias was born I visited college friends in states where so-called “three-two” beer ruled the night. The first and most important problem with that beer was that “three-two” referred to its alcohol content: 3.2 percent. It’s kind of apples to oranges, as “three-two” beer uses the Alcohol By Weight system rather than the more universal Alcohol By Volume. But still, if you do the math, 3.2 ABW translates to 4 percent ABV, and even that is lower than the average light beer swill. It’s tough being a college kid trying to catch a little beer glow when your brew is only slightly stronger than rum-raisin cake.

The second most-important problem with “three-two” beer is that it tastes like someone poured it into a cup full of ice and left it out in the sun all afternoon. Like Utopias, “three-two” hardly tasted like beer. But unlike Utopias, “three-two” was unappealing and unchallenging in every way. The lesson here is that among all of the information that could appear on a beer label to tell you how a beer will taste—the ingredients, the beer style, even the clever name — the ABV should not be overlooked.

The ABV alone will not clue you in to a beer’s hoppiness, or its subtle overtones of coriander, but it will tell you roughly the amount or intensity of flavor you can expect. You probably will not find a 9 percent beer that is light and breezy and perfect for a mid-week concert on the lawn at Pritzker Pavilion. You also will struggle to find a 4.5 percent beer that puts you in the mind of the lush and rugged terrain of Scotland, or makes you want to write poetry on a napkin after the first sip. Part of a beer’s flavor, whether you realize it or not, is derived from its alcohol content.

This is not an exact science but beer flavor and alcohol levels sort of rise and fall together. Knowing the alcohol level of your beer also is helpful on days when you plan to speak in public, play Jenga or shop with a credit card. But we’re talking about flavor here. When pairing food with beer, remember that higher-alcohol beers balance out rich, fatty foods. So if you are about to tear into a bacon cheeseburger with caramelized onions, choose a rich, 8 percent beer rather than a crisp, 5 percenter. You probably can’t go wrong either way, but if you start noticing how alcohol content affects the taste of the beers you are choosing, you might learn something about what you like.

In the end, the Utopias started to grow on us. The initial shock was gone and slowly, seamlessly, it became easier to enjoy — like watching a movie with subtitles. Sometimes you’re willing to put that kind of work into it, and other times you want an R-rated action flick to blow you away, or a PG-13 romantic comedy with a familiar cast to give you those warm, lovey feelings. You don’t pick movies based on their ratings but you kind of know what to expect when you see those rating letters.

You could think of ABV numbers the same way. Some G movies are great but they’re never going to offer what an R movie can. Whether that’s good or bad is up to you.

Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail

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