Monday, 18 January 2016

Not so special

A while back, I did a number of posts about extra-strong “super” lagers and the potential effect on them of High Strength Beer Duty. I predicted that there was a good chance that their makers would either reduce their strength to 7.5% ABV to avoid HSBD, or bring out cheaper 7.5% versions. In fact, this didn’t happen, and, with the exception of Gold Label (which is a barley wine anyway) they remained defiantly stuck at 9%. It’s an odd hidden backwater of the beer market where there’s no advertising, and product innovation is virtually impossible.

However, as Ed Wray reports, the strength of Carlsberg Special has now been reduced to 8%, which perhaps was the price to be paid for getting it back into the mainstream supermarkets. (Thanks Ed for the picture) I’m not going to go round dodgy corner shops peering at the super lager section, so I can’t confirm whether this also applies to Kestrel, Skol and Tennents, although the Kestrel website does state that it is “now also available in an 8% variant.”

The Kestrel tasting notes are a classic, and taken in isolation would surely imply a brew that is an acme of “craft”:

Appearance: Honey-hued polished gold and ephemeral white foam create an intriguing spectacle.

Aroma: A perfumed sweetness and oaked spirit nose indicate something special to be discovered in this handsome liquid.

Flavour: Sweet toffee and honeyed twists, turns and loops combine with a concentrated wine-like fruitiness, feisty light rum, swirls of malt, and decidedly ripe dessert apple richness.

Mouthfeel and finish: Powerfully spirited and a juicy spice palate with astonishing depth.

I get the impression that the Carlsberg Special strength reduction has more to do with pressure from anti-drink groups about selling cans of beer that contain more than the daily guideline, than about moving to a more market-friendly price point. Now that the guideline has been reduced to 3 units a day, will it have to be cut further to 6.8%, I wonder. I’ve sometimes thought that it would make sense to repackage these beers in “craft” 330ml cans.

As I’ve reported in the past, all the 9% super lagers were actually pretty unpleasant, their only function being as an easy way to neck large quantities of alcohol. Skol Super was perhaps the best of a bad lot. Ironically, reducing their strength may end up making them more palatable. The 7.2% Carlsberg Elephant Beer (not seen for ages) is actually an excellent brew.

At £7.30 for a 4-pack, Carlsberg Special at 51.8p per unit, doesn’t by any means offer the best bangs-per-buck ratio in Tesco. The 7.3% McEwans Champion (another unheralded tramp favourite) can be got for £6 for 4x500ml bottles (41.1p), while the apparently classy 6.5% Old Crafty Hen, on the same offer, is 46.2p. You have to wonder how long it will be before some of the stronger “craft” offerings end up in the same category.

While these products are often dismissed as “tramp juice”, I get the impression they also have a strong customer base amongst respectable drinkers who want to trade quantity for strength. A few years back, I remember seeing in my local convenience store a bearded guy of about 60, who certainly didn’t come across as a derelict, pay £12 for two 4x500 ml packs of Tennents Super, load them into his 4x4 and drive off. Well, I thought, that’s his weekend sorted, then!


  1. Yes, I think it was the Portman Group that did for Spesh. And before anyone screams 'nanny state' they're an industry body. With the new reduced 'safe' limits, and the tax advantage of getting below 7.5% ABV, it's bound to drop further in strength.

  2. Posh tramp juice. As every Scottish teenager knows (or at least did when I was at school), the most bang-per-buck is to found in cheap sherry. Even today £4.50 will get you 750ml of Asda own brand sherry, and special offers are never far away. It is vile though, needs to be cut with some Tennants Super to make the stuff palatable. So vile that not many stuck at it - most graduated to extra-strong lager - or if you had a bit more cash Mad Dog 20/20 - 10 different flavours all made from grapes. What's not to like!!!!

  3. In Scotland, I am led to believe, they had a beverage called electric soup. It was made by infusing milk with the gas from broken gas mantles in tenement hallways; obviously some time ago.
    I saw some Elephant Beer in a specialist beer shop in France only recently. I don’t buy much in there as it’s rather expensive, especially compared with Duvel and Chimay being available in supermarkets for €1.50 or less.

  4. You can get a bottle of Tesco own brand Scotch for just over a tenner which is about 34p per unit, even better than cheap sherry.

  5. We sold a reasonable amount of Special Brew when we had our off-licence; often to the most surprising and unassuming customers. One chap, who used to come in for a few cans several times a week, was actually buying it for his wife. She occasionally came in herself, but she never struck me as a pisshead.

    Another customer, who was a regular purchaser, did have that slightly too ruddy complexion about him which suggested an over fondness for the juice of the barley. I wonder what they’re thinking now about the reduction in strength.


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