Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Inoculator 24.8

The strongest beer ever produced by an Oshkosh brewery is about to be "unleashed." Bare Bones Brewery's Inoculator clocks in at a walloping 24.8% ABV. There's no formal record-keeping for this sort of thing, but Inoculator may very well be the strongest beer ever produced by a Wisconsin brewery.

Erin Bloch of Bare Bones with a five-ounce pour of Inoculator.

The idea came from Dan Dringoli, who launched Bare Bones with his wife Patti Dringoli in 2015. His thoughts began to drift in the direction of strong beer last year while his stepson Jared Sovey was working on the launch of Tight Barrel Distillery in Menasha. "Spirits have always intrigued me," Dringoli says. "I began thinking about how strong can you make a beer and I wondered why no one in Wisconsin was trying to make a super high-gravity beer. So, I challenged Jody to create 'the strongest beer' in Wisconsin. He did not let me down."

The Jody in question is Jody Cleveland, head brewer at Bare Bones. Dringoli had steered him into the unknown. Cleveland had never brewed a beer stronger than 12% ABV. After a couple of weeks of research, he began brewing.

The first step began eight months ago with Cleveland making wort: the sweet liquid that gets fermented into beer. The process went on for days and consumed 132 pounds of malted barley and 10 pounds of locally sourced maple syrup. Normally that would be enough raw material to produce about 310 gallons of beer. This time, it resulted in just 10-gallons of exceedingly strong beer. "We're hoping the demand will justify the cost of making it," Dringoli said.

Brewers, unlike spirits makers, are not permitted to use distillation to concentrate the alcoholic content of their product. So Cleveland had to produce a wort so rich in sugar that it would have the potential to create an extreme level of alcohol solely through fermentation. He used a method known as reiterated mashing. It's a technique that has been employed in recent years at both Fifth Ward Brewing and Fox River Brewing in Oshkosh to produce stronger than usual beers. Cleveland took it to another level.

He began by mashing three successive grists of malted barley. When the sugary wort came flowing out of the first mash, he replenished his mash tun with fresh malt and ran the wort back into it to create and collect more fermentable sugars. Now Cleveland had a wort rich enough to make a beer in the neighborhood of 16% ABV. That wasn't enough. So he went at it again with another fresh batch of malt. After boiling the wort for four hours he finally had the high-gravity liquid he was shooting for. "That wort was so thick," Cleveland said. "I mean it was just viscus, almost like syrup."

But there was a problem. Each time the wort passed through the tun, the new bed of malt would soak up a substantial portion of it. The long boil further reduced the volume. At the end of Cleveland's first 17-hour brew day, he had the sugar-rich liquid he wanted, but there was just so little of it. So he came back to work the next morning and repeated the process. Then he did it again the following morning. After more than 50 hours of brewing spread across three days, Cleveland finally had what he needed.

The wort was fermented with a special ale yeast able to survive in a high-alcohol environment. Most beer yeast goes dormant when it encounters alcohol levels around 10% ABV. This yeast kept grinding. The fermentation lasted weeks, and when it was nearly finished Cleveland split the batch in two. Half the beer was conditioned on oak chips stripped from the interior of a whiskey barrel. The other half was conditioned on oak cut from the inside of a cognac barrel. The finished beer was then blended back together and packaged in kegs.

Inoculator is dark bronze in color. It's thick, rich, and boozy with a smokey/sweet character that's surprisingly mellow for something just shy of 50 proof. "The flavor is pretty close to what I was expecting," Cleveland said. "But I'm a little surprised by how smooth it turned out. It’s certainly strong, and you feel it, but it’s pretty smooth."

Inoculator will be released at the Bare Bones taproom at noon on Friday, April 2, as part of the brewery's Unleashed Series of experimental beers. Because of its strength and limited quantity, it will be served in five-ounce pours with a limit of one per customer.

A slightly different version of this article appears in today's Oshkosh Herald.


  1. Nice job Jody! Not his favorite but no doubt he can do whatever he sets his mind to.