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The Straight Dope

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What's the deal with "ice beer"? What's supposed to be good about it? As an occasional home brewer, 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? --Rick Hodges, Alexandria, Virginia

Both. But 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 around 24 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the water in the brew turns to ice crystals, but the alcohol, which has a lower freezing point, doesn't. Many brewers filter out the ice and some other solids, 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 because they have to be. Government regulations forbid the advertising of alcohol content (though see below). But the beer industry has also been attacked by consumer groups for allegedly targeting heavy drinkers. The companies downplay the high-alcohol aspect to avoid flak, counting on the barroom grapevine 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 hinted that it was "bolder" and emphasized the improved taste. The strategy evidently worked. In Canada ice beer now accounts for 8 percent of beer sales; in the U.S. it's 5 to 6 percent.

It should be said that ice beers aren't that much more alcoholic than the regular stuff--typically 5.6 percent by volume, about the same as malt liquor, versus 5 percent. For comparison, light beers are around 4 percent alcohol.

You can get a punchier brew if you look for it, a project made easier by the fact that 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, you should pardon the expression, a staggering 17.4 percent. Drink it if you dare, but don't exhale near an open flame.

DON'T BOTHER ME WITH THE FACTS

In your recent item about turning BILL GATES 3 into 666 [July 28] you said Gates "invented the 640K limit." Tim Patterson was the original author of QDOS, which was the starting point for both PC-DOS and MS-DOS. Tim has pointed out many times that it was IBM, and not he nor boy billionaire Mr. Gates, who created the infamous 640K barrier by placing video memory just above that point in the original IBM PC design. Without that decision we might have had a 1024K barrier instead. In fairness to IBM, most computers of that era had 64K of RAM, so increasing that by a factor of ten must have seemed like a huge amount at the time. Bill Gates and his accomplices have been responsible for many good, bad, and ugly things, but the 640K limit is not one of them. --Tom Rombouts, Redondo Beach, California

Cecil knows this. However, he feels that if you have all the money it's only fair that you get all the grief. Besides, while Gates didn't invent the 640K barrier, his operating system helped perpetuate it. The hardware basis for the 640K barrier disappeared with the introduction of 80286-based computers in 1984. But the limit was kept alive by DOS, which too faithfully reflected the memory-addressing scheme and other limitations of the earliest PCs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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