Tuesday 21 July 2015

Dangerously drinkable

It recently seems to have dawned on some beer bloggers that drinking lots of high-strength craft beers, even if only in halves or thirds, does have a tendency to get you drunk. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but in reality the availability of a wide choice of strong beers in all kinds of styles is a fairly new phenomenon on the British beer scene. Perhaps it needs a fundamental reconsideration of how beer drinking is approached.

If we go back to before CAMRA was formed, the number of beer enthusiasts in Britain, in the sense of people who would make a point of trying out new or different brews, was minimal. Of course a lot of people enjoyed drinking beer – and they drank a lot more of it than we do now – but pretty much all of it was mild and bitter of various kinds, and little much over 4% ABV. Many brewers produced old ales around Christmas time, but virtually none had a draught stout, where Guinness enjoyed an effective monopoly. The exotic (and often strong) foreign beers from Belgium and Germany that now cluster on the shelves of your local Tesco were scarcely ever seen.

In the early years of CAMRA, little changed. The organisation, after all, was primarily interested in methods of storage and dispense, not in beer styles. Yes, it did like to imply that real ale was made of authentic natural ingredients, and keg beer was made from chemicals, but that was always at best a gross exaggeration. Its first ten years were basically spent championing the products of the independent family brewers and the real ales still made by the Big Six. There was more emphasis placed on stronger premium bitters – most notably with the introduction of Ind Coope Burton Ale – but the general mix of styles remained much the same. While lager steadily gained market share, much of that was even weaker than ordinary bitters.

The 1980s saw the first wave of microbreweries, but again they were generally just trying to brew their own versions of the classic British beer styles, often well, sometimes incompetently. One noticeable change was the growing number of cask stouts and porters, but they were generally of fairly sessionable strength. Then we had the rise of golden ales, which eventually became regarded as a beer category in their own right. But they were really just a subset of “bitter”, and indeed there had previously been some distinctly pale bitters such as Boddingtons, Stones and Theakstons. Even the more recent trends of “very pale and very hoppy” and New World hops still essentially stayed within the conventional categories of style and strength.

It’s only fairly recently, spurred on by the increasing influence of US craft brewing, and the rise of craft keg, that especially strong beers and experimental flavours have become commonplace. Looking back through the archives, I don’t think I ever mentioned “craft beer” before 2010. To be honest, this trend doesn’t really float my boat, and on the rare occasions I really want something strong I’ll go for an Old Tom or something Belgian. It’s also something that runs contra to the current movement towards lower-strength beers. I’m certainly not against it, though, and enterprise and innovation always deserve celebrating even if they’re not my thing.

Traditionally, the ordinary pub drinker would rarely touch anything above about 5%, except maybe for a half of Old Tom or suchlike at the end of the evening. However, if you want to enjoy a series of Imperial Stouts and Double IPAs, you just can’t jug them back like cooking bitter. You have to pace yourself, drink thirds if available and maybe have water spacers. It’s nothing like the classic Friday night out and, if anything, more like a whisky tasting session. If that’s what you want to do to catch all these flavours, fair enough. But it bears very little resemblance to the way beer is enjoyed by the vast majority of the drinking population, and it could be seen as another way of cutting the enthusiast off from the mainstream. He’s no longer drinking just better beer, he’s drinking completely different beer.


  1. Isn't that the point, though? They deliberately have cut themselves off from the mainstream drinker. Often regardless of strength, I'd say. I was told only the other night by a drinker that he only drinks thirds except when he wants to push the boat out and then he'll have a half. Oh dear...

  2. If he only drinks thirds then presumably he never goes in any pubs used by "norms". Even Spoons don't serve thirds except in tasting flights.

  3. I think there was a bit of a trend towards higher ABV beers right from the early 90s - a big part of the appeal of Summer Lightning was that it was stronger than you'd expect as well as tasting a bit different, although without actually tasting 'strong'. (Which was exactly the appeal of 'real' Stella or Heineken when you had them in Europe, as I remember. Summer Lightning: the bitter for people who'd had blonde beers on holiday? Where are B&B when you need them?) So right from the Rooster/Phoenix/Marble/Abbeydale period there was a bit of envelope-pushing going on, shifting the range you'd expect from 3.2-4.8 (say) to something more like 3.8-5.5. But beers brewed at silly o'clock % are definitely a US-crafty thing.

  4. At some point in the mid 90s I drank the Surbiton High Street's Hogshead entire supply of Duvel. Somehow I made it back to the flat but the exertion required led to me collapsing in the hallway. My then girlfriend discovered me lying on the floor, front door unlocked and, as she told me later, assumed I was dead. Glorious times.

  5. 'Alterno-beer' has long tended to be stronger. Cult 1970s favourites like Fuller's ESB and Old Peculier were cool partly because they had a bit of poke; then there were the silly-strong Firkin beers like Dogbolter and Earthstopper in the 1980s.

    But back then, people were a bit more likely just to get staggering pissed, I think, rather than attempting to compensate for the high ABV with smaller measures.

  6. I remember approaching my first half of Fullers ESB (OG 1055.5 I think) with considerable trepidation.

  7. Professor Pie-Tin21 July 2015 at 11:18

    I remember when an entire evening session on Wadworth 6X ( 4.1% )was only undertaken by the brave or foolhardy.
    Lovely pint though.

  8. Most pubs don't sell these beers because they don't sell "craft keg" and it would be difficult to sell some of these beers in cask form before they went off. I suppose Dobbin was one of the first to push the boat out - his Yakima Grande Pale Ale was 1055 og and- according to my old GBGs 6% ABV.

    By the way this might make a good piece for a certain local CAMRA magazine....

  9. I don't think craft necessarily means stronger beer, it just means a wider variety of beer in every sense - style, origin, strength, means of dispense.

    Of course, to support a wider variety of options, you either need a lot of beer-focused customers to support multiple casklines, or you need to stick your less popular options in bottle or on keg.

    I rarely see a cask ale above 6% - even in craft beer pubs with 8-12 lines - but often see keg lines selling stronger stuff by the half for about £3-4 a pop. Alright if you like that kind of thing, but not my style. No real difference to sitting and sipping wine or whisky.

  10. Yes, during the CAMRA era there has been an ever-widening choice of stronger beers, starting of course with Ruddles County in the 1970s, when it had near-legendary status. And surely one factor behind the dramatic rise of Stella was that it was 5.2%, and thus the strongest draught beer on the bar. But, as I said here, in recent years there has been a reversal of this trend, at least in mainstream pubs.

    And we've never before been in a situation where specialist pubs were offering a choice of five or more beers above 6% on draught, and some beer enthusiasts were expecting to spend their entire evening drinking them.

  11. Whereas I think craft beer in general and craft keg in particular is and always was destined to break through into the mainstream, I think the habit of spending the evening sipping thirds of 8% beer will only ever be a niche activity.

    There will be maybe one or two specialist craft beer bars in every town where this is possible, but its not going to be on offer in your bog-standard pub - a growing number (most?) of which now at least give a passing nod to the craft beer trend.

  12. Chats with licensees and my own observations suggest to me that the most popular strength of real ales in pubs is in the 3.9% to 4.4% range. My own favourite range is 4% to 5%. I become cautious with beers much over 5.5%.

  13. When Whitbread first started brewing Heineken, under license, for their pubs, they took the decision to brew it at the much lower strength of 3.4% abv. The Continental norm of 5.0% was considered way too strong for British drinkers, back in the 1960’s. Most ordinary bitters would have been produced to a similar, low strength at this time.

  14. A friend once told me that, unless it comes out of a bottle, the Weights and Measures act does not allow publicans to serve beer in anything other than pints and halves. I assumed this was correct because if you can get a Belgian beer on tap in the UK - such as Leffe or Hoegarden - you have to buy a half or a pint rather than the normal measure in the glass supplied by the brewer in Belgium.

    Is this true or another of those urban myths?

  15. It is true, but you can also serve beer in thirds and (from a few years ago) in two-thirds.

  16. I woner what will happen if I wander into the Angel in the Fields in London and order a third of their Wheat beer.....

    Just saying thaqt it is a Sam Smiths pub, with great beer at great prices for London.

    Sam Smiths of course is one of those British brewers who produce a whole range of bottled beers for the export trade. You can buy Sam Smiths botled ales in their pubs but there is a whole range of strong British beer only available in bottles on the European continent. I think that Sam Smiths major market is actually the USA. A friend of mine in Seattle loves their stout - and I didn't even know they brewed a stout till I visited.

  17. Sam Smiths bottled beers are great and are highly regarded. Some of the draught stuff is a bit so-so, but at those prices, who can complain? Its a shame there are not more SS pubs around the country. One in Cambridge city centre would be very welcome.

  18. @Graeme - I don't think a Sam Smith's pub (or most other non-enthusiast pubs) would serve you beer in thirds - it's not a legal requirement. Some will let you have three in a tasting flight, though.

    Sam's do produce a keg stout which is AFAIK in all their pubs and is generally reckoned to be far better than Guinness.

    @py - It's a pity Sam's don't seem to be interested in acquisitions, as I can think of plenty of locations where one would provide much-needed variety and price competition.

    OBB is something that I doubt appeals to your particular tastebuds, but I'd say all of Sam's keg range compare quite favourably with their mass-market competitors. Cooking Lager has been known to sing the praises of Double Four and Taddy.

  19. One of the only pints I ever walked out on was an OBB. Was like drinking liquid sugar. Reminded me of Doom Bar.

    The keg stuff - the mild, the stout, the wheat beer, the lagers - tends to sit in the gap where its better than the mass market equivalent but still not particularly interesting - IMO its worth paying the quid or so extra to get a bottle of the IPA or nut brown ale out of the fridge.

    A good range over a variety of price points though.

  20. I like Sam Smith's - they have several pubs in Central London which serve decent beer at a decent price which is a refreshing change from the eye-watering prices charged by most pubs in the central area. It's even better if you stumble across one in the north; I remember having to double take when I was charged £1.44 for a pint of mild up in their Durham pub a couple of years ago.

    Old Brewery Bitter is bland and unremarkable but their IPA, Brown Ale and the two bottle stouts (Imperial and Chocolate) are excellent beers and well worth the extra money.

  21. Not for nothing are Brew Dog opening up branches faster than Lidl and Aldi combined, or so it seems. Their Punk IPA and all of its stable mates are available in thirds, halves, two thirds and even whole pints. Their ethos runs along the lines of craft + strength + beer hipsters = max £. Good luck to them, I say.


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