Beer Man

With an ABV Akin to Wine, River North Brewery's Newest Beers Are Best Sipped Slowly

The Vicennial series includes beers that are all above 15 percent ABV.
The Vicennial series includes beers that are all above 15 percent ABV. River North Brewery
Most of the people who walk through the doors of River North Brewery’s two taprooms know what they're in for, says owner Matt Hess: A tap list that is at least half filled with big, boozy behemoths like Nightmare Fuel, a barrel-aged imperial stout that comes in at 12.9 percent ABV, and Quandary, a sweet Belgian-style quadrupel with an ABV up around 10.5 percent.

How much alcohol is that? Well, a typical wine is about 13 percent, while sherry and port run from 15 to 20 percent. In other words, Hess explains, “These are beers made for sipping.”

On Saturday November 13, River North will release a set of four barrel-aged beers that are among the highest-alcohol offerings the brewery has ever produced. The baby of the bunch, Father Time, a barleywine, is 15.8 percent, while The Last Guardian, a barrel-aged Belgian golden ale, is 18.9 percent. The other two are Shadowman, a 16.9 percent barrel-age, and God Complex, an 18.7 percent Belgian quad.

"We like pushing the limits on things," Hess says. "So the thought behind it was to launch an extreme version of high-ABV beers, and the next logical step was to put them in barrels."

click to enlarge Matt Hess (right) and his crew at River North Brewery. - RIVER NORTH BREWERY
Matt Hess (right) and his crew at River North Brewery.
River North Brewery
The Vicennial series, as it is called, debuted in 2017 with three beers. It alternates years with the Decennial series, which consists of the same beers, but without the barrel aging. The Last Guardian is the newest of the bunch, having been released in its non-barrel-aged format last year. Hess says that River North may add a fifth and final beer to the series next year, though he didn't want to provide details yet.

“Your average beer drinker may be a little bit confused by these,” Hess acknowledges, especially since most beers are between 4 and 7 percent ABV. “So you have to let people taste them and make up their own minds. … We have a following of people who really enjoy those beers.”

Although the beers, which come in 12.7-ounce bottles, can be enjoyed now, they are also meant to be aged for up to ten years. A full set of four costs $64; they are available for pre-order now.

High-alcohol beers aren’t new. Barleywines have been brewed in England for at least a hundred years, while Belgian strong ales and abbey-style quads date back even further. In Colorado, Avery Brewing was one of the first craft breweries to push the limits on styles and ABV in 1998 when it produced its first batch of Hog Heaven Barleywine. The brewery followed up with a series of even bigger beers, some flirting with 20 percent ABV, before discontinuing all of them all in 2016 and changing directions.

click to enlarge RIVER NORTH BREWERY
River North Brewery
These days, a good portion of the breweries in the state have produced a least one or two beers at 10 percent or above. Many are barrel-aged stouts, Belgians and barleywines, but there are also plenty of double and triple IPAs that regularly reach that level of alcohol — or higher.

Surging past the 15 percent mark is much more uncommon, however. The only other brewery to do this on a regular basis is Burns Family Artisan Ales, a nano-producer whose owners, Wayne Burns and Laura Worley, are particularly fond of bombshell brews. Some examples have included Auld Lang Syne, a 16.5 percent brandy-barrel-aged barleywine; Solar Eclipse, an 18.8 percent Russian imperial stout aged in whiskey barrels; and Warsled of Valhalla, a 20.15 percent triple-barrel-aged stout.

River North and Burns have collaborated on beers in the past, though not on high-ABV ones. But Hess says that "pushing the limits" in the future is "probably our next step." He also promises to release a triple-barrel-aged stout above 20 percent ABV at River North's tenth-anniversary party next year.

"These beers are definitely helping Uber's business model," he adds with a laugh.
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes