A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the deal with "ice beer"?

September 1, 1995

Dear Cecil:

What's the deal with "ice beer"? What's supposed to be good about it? As an occasional homebrewer, my gut tells me that freezing beer to make it better is a crock, but I've never heard the breweries try to explain it. Is there something to it, or are they all riding the wave of the latest gimmick?

Dear Rick:

Both. Ice beer ads are mysterious for good reason, as we shall see. Beer sales have been flat in recent years and brewers have been desperately searching for something to punch up the market. Dry beer (less aftertaste) didn't do much, but ice beer seems to be making more of an impression. Modern ice brews were first introduced in Canada in 1993 but the basic technique has been around for ages. After brewing in the usual manner, ice beer is chilled to 24 to 28 degrees F. Some of the water in the brew turns to ice crystals, but the alcohol, which has a lower freezing point, doesn't. After the beer ages some brewers filter out the ice and what you're left with is a supposedly smoother and definitely more alcoholic beer — just the opposite, curiously, of low-alcohol, low-cal light beer, which saved the industry in the 80s.

Ice beer ads are vague about what the product actually is and beer company spokespeople are equally vague about why. But the industry has been attacked by consumer groups for allegedly targeting heavy drinkers. Presumably the companies are downplaying the high-alcohol aspect to avoid more flak, counting on barroom bullshitters to explain what the ads don't. Besides, what would the ads say? "If you're holdin' a Golden you'll be heavin' when you're leavin'"? Commercials for Molson Ice merely hint that it's "bolder." So far the strategy seems to be working. In Canada ice beer now accounts for 10 percent of beer sales.

In fairness, ice beers aren't that much more alcoholic than the regular stuff — typically 5.6 percent, about the same as malt liquor, versus 5 percent. Some aren't higher at all. Anheuser-Busch doesn't filter out the ice crystals, so its Budweiser Ice Draft has the same alcohol content as regular Bud. For comparison, light beers range from 3.7 to 4.2 percent alcohol.

You can get a punchier brew if you look for it, a project made easier by the fact the U.S. regulators now allow brewers to list alcohol content on their products. Labatt's Maximum Ice, available only in Canada, is 7.1 percent alcohol, while German ice beers reportedly contain 8 to 11 percent. The champ — and it isn't even an ice beer — is Samuel Adams Triple Bock, which wafts in at a staggering 17.4 percent. Drink it if you dare, but don't exhale near an open flame.

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