Ice beer is a style of beer that undergoes a process referred to as fractional freezing; where the beer’s temperature is lowered to just under freezing, typically around 27℉ (-2℃). Since water has a much higher freezing point than alcohol (ethanol) only the water freezes at this temperature forming ice crystals. These ice crystals are then removed leaving the ethanol behind resulting in the remaining ice beer having a higher concentration of alcohol. This process is also referred to as freeze distillation.
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What is Ice Beer?
Ice beers are typically lagers but with a higher alcohol content than your standard American lager. It is also claimed that as a result of the fractional freezing process these beers undergo that they are clearer-looking beers with a cleaner crisper taste.
There are two styles of ice beers: German Eisbock and North American Ice Beers. Although both are considered to be ice beers and do undergo a similar process they could not be more different from each other.
German Eisbock is a traditional lager brewed in Germany. It is a very strong beer with ABVs ranging from 9 – 15% with reports that some have reached close to 40%. When an Eisbock undergoes the freeze distillation process the majority of the water is turned to ice so that when removed the remaining alcohol is very concentrated resulting in a beer with a very high ABV. These ice beers are typically considered winter beers, they are brown to dark brown in color and have a very malt-forward taste.
North American Ice Beers, on the other hand, do not undergo as extensive of a freezing process, instead, they are allowed to form what brewers call ice crystals which is in reality simply a light slush. Since not all of the water in the beer is frozen when this slush is removed a large portion of water remains in the beer resulting in the ABV of the beer typically only being increased by 0.5% – 1%.
Although considered to be a stronger beer than a standard American beer they typically only have an alcohol by volume of around 5.5 – 6%; and are marketed more for their clean, crisp, and smooth taste.
Where an Eisbock is considered to be a high-quality beer, North American Ice Beers are quite the opposite and are considered to be low-quality beers marketed to people looking for high-alcohol beers at an inexpensive price.
The History of Ice Beer
More urban legend than history it is said that the first ice beer was brewed by accident back in the late 1800s at a brewery called Reichelbrau in a region of Germany called Franconia.
Apparently, one cold winter evening a brewing apprentice was tasked with moving a barrel of Bock beer out of the cold and into a warmer location in the brewery. For whatever reason, the apprentice neglected to do as instructed. The next morning the master brewer discovered that the majority of the beer had frozen solid leaving a small amount of liquid at the bottom of the barrel. This liquid became the first ice beer and was called Eisbock which translated to English means “ice bock”.
Canadians are responsible for inventing the North American style of Ice Beer. In 1989 a craft brewery out of Ontario Canada began brewing an Eisbock. It was called Falls Eisbock, named after Niagara Falls. It was released every winter as a seasonal beer and had an ABV of 8%. The company was sold in 1994 and the beer was discontinued.
The large Canadian commercial brewery Molson was next to brew an ice beer and even though Falls Eisbock had been in production since 1989 it did not stop Molson from claiming they were the first to do so in North America. However, in an interesting twist, their competitor Labatts disputed this claim stating they had already patented the process. Both breweries added ice beer to their product line in the spring/summer of 1993.
Not shortly after the launch of these two beers Miller purchased distribution rights of Molson’s beer and brought Molson Ice to the US beer market and also launched their own Ice beer called Icehouse.
Not to be outdone Anheuser Busch got in on the action by brewing Bud Ice in 1994 and Natural Ice & Busch Ice in 1995.
These North American Ice Beers share no resemblance with their German ancestor, being much lighter in color as well as taste and having a significantly lower ABV. They are considered by beer connoisseurs to be of lower quality.
Ice Beer Brands
Although it’s true that ice beer was at the height of its popularity in the mid-’90s, contrary to the predictions of many skeptics at the time that it was a fad that would fizzle out, today there continue to be numerous brands of this style of beer on the market. The following are some of the more well-known brands…
Aventinus Eisbock – Although you can find numerous brands of Eisbock, especially in Europe, Aventinus is one of the more popular. Surprisingly it was not originally brewed as an Eisbock but rather a Wheat-Doppelbock; however much like the story of how ice beer was invented, apparently in 1930 while being transported it was mistakenly allowed to freeze resulting in it going through a freeze distillation of sorts. Apparently, in recent years the brewery, having heard this story and how the resulting remaining beer was thoroughly enjoyed, decided to relaunch this beer as an Eisbock.
Bud Ice – Brewed by Anheuser-Busch InBev Bud Ice is considered to be a light-bodied American-style lager. It has an ABV of 5.5% with only 136 calories, marketed as a higher alcohol beer with an affordable taste it has been one of the top-selling brands of this style for many years.
Natty Ice – Also brewed by Anheuser- Busch Natty Ice is actually the nickname for another popular brand of beer, i.e. Natural Ice Beer. Also a typical American Lager it is brewed with a mixture of barley and corn and marketed as being smooth and refreshing. It has a little higher ABV at 5.9%.
Icehouse Beer – Made by Molson Coors Brewing Company it is considered to be the first ice beer actually brewed in America. Icehouse beer is considered by many to be of a slightly higher quality than other brands of this style. ABV of 5.5%.
Busch Ice – Another beer brewed by Anheuser-Busch. Like the other North American brands, it resembles a typical pale lager but with a higher alcohol content coming in at 5.9%.
Molson Ice – Claiming to be the first ice beer brewed in North America, it also holds the title of being the first ice beer marketed in the USA. Being originally a Canadian beer most Canadians would view this beer as being of superior quality to its American counterparts. It has a 5.6% ABV.
Milwaukee’s Best Ice – Affectionately referred to as beast ice and a favorite of university students due to its lower cost but higher alcohol content (5.9%). Do not let its lower cost fool you, Milwaukee’s Best Ice is in fact a medal-winning beer, having won bronze medals at both the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup.
How to Make Ice Beer
If you want to make your own ice beer we recommend that you first make a lager vs an ale. Although some ice beers are ales, the majority are lagers as they tend to produce a crisper and smoother tasting beer.
You can find details on how to lager beer here. Because ice beers have a higher alcohol content we do recommend modifying the recipe by increasing the base grains to 15lbs for a 5-gallon batch.
Follow all of the brewing steps as outlined in that post; however before you bottle the beer you need to put it through the freeze distillation process, which simply involves putting it in a freezer and letting its water content freeze. Depending on how strong of a beer you want to make you can either simply let some slush form if you are striving for a slight increase in alcohol or for a very strong beer let all of the water freeze into ice. Next, simply remove the slush or ice and proceed with either kegging or bottling the remaining beer.
A question asked by many people trying to make ice beer is always how can you tell what the ABV of the beer is. Unfortunately, unless you have some very expensive equipment it is not easy to do, as you can see on this beer forum there are many varying opinions on how to do so.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why are ice beers stronger? They are stronger as a result of all or a large portion of the water being removed from them, leaving behind a much higher concentration of alcohol.
How do you drink ice beer? American versions of this beer are drunk the same way as any other American Lager, typically from a bottle or can, but they can also be found on tap in bars and are served in a glass. The main thing to keep in mind is that because they are stronger it takes less of these beers to get intoxicated.
Why is ice beer so cheap? On average it is actually no cheaper than most mass-produced commercial beers on the market. Although some of the brands are slightly less expensive, this is a marketing tactic aimed at people looking to become intoxicated quickly at a cheaper price.
The Final Word
To sum it up the majority of ice beer on the market are simply American-style lagers with a slightly higher alcohol content typically 5 – 6%; brewed using a process called freeze distillation where some of the water content of the beer is frozen and removed. If you wish to try this style for yourself there are numerous brands on the market to choose from or if you make beer brewing this style for yourself is a relatively simple process.
P.S. If you make your own beer be sure to check out our gift to you. On the side of the blog or on the bottom on a smart device grab Robb’s top 5 recipes from his brewpub. Cheers!
from his brewpub. Cheers!