Thursday 27 September 2012

A crafty tramp

As discussed in a recent post, super-strength lagers such as Carlsberg Special Brew are often dismissed as “tramp juice”, the preserve of street drinkers and other alcoholics. However, given these products appear on the shelves of major supermarkets and lists of Top 50 beer brands, it is obvious that they have a market that goes well beyond that. I remember once seeing in my local convenience store a respectable enough middle-aged bloke come in, buy eight 500ml cans of Tennent’s Super (£12 at the time) and take them home in his car, and thinking “well, that’s his weekend sorted then”. People have always to some extent traded strength for volume and, while it would not be classed by Don Shenker as “responsible drinking”, is that actually conceptually any worse than going out to the pub two nights in a row and drinking seven pints of Stella?

It’s interesting how these products have evolved over the years to be seen as in some way disreputable, when originally that was never the case. Carlsberg Special was introduced in 1950 to commemorate a visit to Denmark by Winston Churchill, and was positioned as a distinctive, high-quality, premium product, which in most of Europe it still is.

I can remember the days when it was mainly available in 275ml bottles and broadly competed in the same market as “a bottle of Pils”. There was a couple who were regulars in a pub I visited – he drank pints of bitter, she drank bottles of Special Brew (poured into a glass, of course).

It is only relatively recently (maybe in the past 20-odd years) that it has come to be adopted as a favourite of street drinkers, and I would suggest mostly that they have come to Carlsberg rather than Carlsberg actively seeking out their custom. A classic example of this process is Buckfast Tonic Wine, which was originally intended as a pick-me-up for grannies rather than loopy juice for Scottish neds. I think Tennent’s Super (originally Special) may have similar respectable antecedents, although it is hard to see the Kestrel and Skol versions as anything but copycats.

And is it really that far removed in underlying concept from a certain 7.5% lager once produced by another Scottish brewery? Indeed, if you don’t think much of Special Brew, Carlsberg also have the much more highly-regarded 7.2% Elephant Beer in their portfolio.

Back in the 1960s, many brewers would have an Old Ale or Barley Wine in their range, often sold only in nip bottles, at a gravity of 1080 or above. These were normally favoured in pubs by older drinkers who wanted to keep up their alcohol intake while minimising the amount of fluid consumed, and weren’t in any sense associated with trouble. Back then, Robinson’s Old Tom and Whitbread Gold Label were competing in the same market, but one has now become a well-regarded “craft” beer with a number of spin-off variants, while the other is now an unpromoted zombie brand presumably selling to a dwindling market of codgers and grannies. And Old Tom is now the stronger of the two.

An interesting example of how over the years two beers have moved apart into largely different market segments. But craft brews for connoisseurs, and drunks’ delights, come rather closer than many might think. It also has to be said that many enthusiast writers about beer tend to be rather coy about the effect it has on you. If you can afford it, you can get ratarsed on Imperial Double IPA just as easily as on Special Brew, and I expect some do, while all the time believing themselves to be discerning drinkers.

Take, for example, Duvel, the 8.5% bottle-conditioned Belgian pale ale widely regarded as a world classic. It’s not cheap (although I have seen it on offer in Tesco) but, for its strength, it’s light in body and relatively easy to drink, and functionally will do exactly the same job as Spesh. And there’s McEwan’s Champion, a 7.3% brew widely available in the same offers as the rest of the premium bottled ales. You may not think of this as a craft beer, but in fact it goes back many years and is one of the few surviving examples of the historic Burton Ale style. Yet how many drinkers are choosing it for its heritage rather than its strength?

The lines are even more blurred in the cider sector. Weston’s are a well-respected independent cidermaker, whose flagship product is Henry Weston’s Vintage. It’s an oak-aged, 100% apple juice cider, weighing in at a hefty 8.2%. I hesitate to offer cider tasting notes, but this is certainly lighter in body and less tannic than some others on the market. It’s a classy product, a long way from Strongbow or Frosty Jack’s, but it’s often seen on offer for only £1.50 a bottle, which is less per unit than the normal selling price of Carlsberg Special. Are people buying this to share a bottle over dinner and enthuse about its subtle apple notes, or because it’s a tasty and cost-effective way of getting pissed?

Then there are all those genuinely artisanal West County farmhouse cidermakers who win numerous awards at CAMRA festivals. But you do wonder whether they actually end up selling much of their production to red-faced old boys who turn up at the farm gate in rusty Lada Nivas with a handful of plastic containers.

The dividing line between “craft” products and those favoured by “bangs-per-buck” heavy drinkers is by no means as clear-cut as many imagine, and it needs to be said unequivocally that the mere fact of being strong does not automatically make a beer or cider a bad or irresponsible product. If the playing field ends up being further levelled by minimum pricing, more craft brewers may be surprised to find their distinctive niche products suddenly becoming a tramps’ treat.


  1. An interesting post and your point is well taken - it's funny, back in college during the late 70's, the "show offs" among our crowd would come by with 6-packs of Carlsberg Elephant, extolling its high-powered virtues. This was at a time when (in Ohio) 3.2 ABW was sold to people age 18-21 and there were relatively few European imports available - pretty much just Heineken, Bass, St. Pauli Girl/Becks. Even Canadian beer was considered an exotic "import" - though we hardly give it a thought today. Funny how things have changed here, at least.

  2. Good post. A lot of the dismissive comments about certain beers come from posers who regard themselves as discerning, and who don't wish to be associated with the plebs of the drinking world - they are, in short, out-and-out snobs. The reality is that a lot of people aren't so fussed about the intricacies of the flavour of their pint, as long as they find it tastes as they expect without any surprises.

    That's not how I drink, but then a foodie would probably be unimpressed with my relatively unadventurous, straightforward diet. We choosy drinkers are the foodies of the drink world, and just as I don't expect a foodie to look down his or her nose at me, it is incumbent upon us to accept without criticism or dismissive sarcasm the drinks other people choose. They wish to buy a drink they're familiar with and not let it get in the way of what they're planning to do, whether it's watch the match, play darts or chat around the pub table. Some of us yearn for novelty and innovation - others don't like to be slapped in the face by their beer (to use Meer For Beer's apposite phrase).

    Quite simply, more tolerance and sheer good manners from fussy drinkers wouldn't go amiss.

  3. I'm not sure whether you will find this interesting or not but you will see tramps outside every German hauptbahnhof (main station) drinking products that in Britain are only available in specialist off licences and craft beer geek pubs.

    Augustiner Helles (a beer I have only seen in Britain in specialist outlets) is by far the most popular brand in the hands of Munich tramps where a bottle is about a third the price of that in Blighty.

    Becks, & Holsten are most popular among Hamburg tramps despite the price being twice that of Britain.

    A notable feature of German tramps is that they are likely to be drunk but less drunk than British tramps, capable of more coherent English than British tramps and less likely to be Scottish.

  4. That's the point, Cookie - one man's tramp juice is another man's craft beer or cider.

  5. Earlier this year I saw 'tramps' in a park in Brussels necking Chimay Bleue straight from the bottle.

  6. Earlier this year I saw 'tramps' in a park in Brussels necking Chimay Bleue straight from the bottle.

    Nothing could illustrate the point better - anything is potential tramp juice if they can get hold of it at the right price. And that is exactly in the desired strength range.

    Presumably they aren't too worried about the yeast as they tend to shit their kecks anyway...

  7. The thing about Carlsberg Special brew is, it tastes exactly like Carlsberg with a shot of vodka in it, which brings back rather horrible memories of my 19th birthday.

    I think this is the source of its poor reputation as much as the propensity of tramps to consume it in large measures - which the ones round my way rather stereotypically do.

  8. I wasn't making a contrary point.

    Blighty appears to have a number of products of the white lighting variety that are produced for the bangs per buck market. I don't see these in other European markets so it is tempting to seek a way to take them off the market.

    I would say the Spesh isn't tramp juice these days having been priced out of the hands of tramps. It's years since I've seen a tramp drink it. Super T was more popular but White Lighting type drinks appear the drink of the modern discerning tramp.

    But you take these products off the market, and something else will become tramp piss.

  9. I remember "Elephant, and there was also Carlsberg "Hof" too.

    I used to go out with a bird called June, who drank "Special brew", she had breath like a glue sniffer in the morning. Wonder what ever happened to her?

  10. Carlsberg Special was a favourite of Kingsley Amis ( see his 'On Drinking' collection)


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