Saturday, 4 March 2017

The ideal strength of beer?

Over many years of beer drinking; four decades to be precise, I’ve often pondered the question of “What is the ideal strength for a beer?” Strength, or alcoholic content to be precise, depends of course on the type of beer; but whilst strong ales, barley wines, quadrupels, Doppelbocks and Imperial Stouts all have their place, so do light, low-strength “quaffing beers”, especially on a hot summer’s day.

For the purpose of this discussion I am talking primarily about mid-strength beers; those you would be happy to have a session on in the local pub or bar. When I first started drinking the strength of a beer was treated almost as classified information. Brewers were not obliged by law to disclose the alcohol content of their beers, so therefore chose not to. This might seem unbelievable to today’s drinkers, but it’s a fact. 

Of course seasoned drinkers instinctively knew which beers were stronger than others, and it didn’t take that much gumption to realise that a pale ale was stronger than a light ale, a best or special bitter was stronger than an ordinary bitter. Terms such as Export also indicated a higher or premium strength beer, but in terms of alcohol by volume, no-one had much of a clue. I certainly didn’t, and like most drinkers of the time, as long as the beer tasted OK, that was fine by me.

It took the efforts of organisations such as CAMRA, along with those of the Consumers’ Organisation, to change things. The figures published initially, related to Original Gravity (OG); basically a measure of the amount of fermentable material present in a beer PRIOR to fermentation. The higher the OG, the stronger, in theory, the end product, but this depends on the degree of attenuation (how much of the malt sugars present in the wort, are converted into alcohol during the fermentation process).

Whilst Original Gravity is a useful indicator of strength, a much more accurate and reliable indicator is that of alcohol by volume (ABV); and that is the system in use today across much of the world. Even the Americans appear to have adopted it, after ditching their previous measure of alcohol by weight.

It now seems inconceivable that this information was not available to previous generations of drinkers, and it is good to know that CAMRA played a leading role in bringing this issue to the fore.

So on to the question of the “ideal strength”. The conclusion I have reached after 40 years enjoyment of beer, is an ABV in the region of 4.0 – 5.0%. There are many beers either side of this band which are both good and enjoyable, but when it comes to quaffability, those beers much above 5.5% are more for sipping than for quaffing, whilst those at 3.5% or below, tend to be thin and lacking in body.

I cut my teeth drinking the latter type of beers, in particular the late and much lamented Fremlins Bitter (3.5%) and Shepherd Neame Master Brew (3.7%). I later enjoyed beers such as Boddingtons and Young’s Ordinary; both in the same strength range. This was because, back in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s, there weren’t many beers in the UK (certainly on draught) in the upper 4 percent bracket, and with a few honourable exceptions (Fuller’s ESB, Ruddle’s County, St Austell Hick’s Special Draught), virtually nothing in the mid five percent range.

The strange thing is that most continental beers (especially Pilsner-type ones), are brewed to a strength of around 5.0% ABV; in fact this figure is very much the European norm for your average quaffing beer. It may seem incredible now, but like the non-disclosure of strength, a beer with an ABV of five percent was considered too strong for British tastes; so much so that when, in the late 1960’s, Whitbread began brewing Heineken under licence, a special lower strength version was brewed for the UK market.

The Dutch company took a lot of convincing that a version of their beer, with a strength of around 3.4%, would sell in the UK; especially as the rest of the world took the normal 5.0% beer, and it took the intervention of no lesser person than Colonel Whitbread to convince Freddy Heineken that British drinkers just weren’t used to five percent beers.

Following Whitbread’s success with Heineken, other large UK brewers started producing low strength versions of famous continental brands. Drinkers were therefore treated to three percent “copies” of Carlsberg and Tuborg to go with the home-grown 3.4% Harp – introduced by Guinness in consortium with a number of other UK brewers.

Anyone who remembers these “bastardised” Continental “lagers” will recall they tasted like “gnat’s piss”; small wonder that the habit of adding a shot of lime (Lager and Lime), or a dash of lemonade (Lager Top), was popular with many drinkers. It wasn’t until I embarked on a round Europe train trip; a journey which took in Holland, Denmark and Germany amongst other countries), that I discovered lager could actually be enjoyable!

Back home and British beers were slowly increasing in strength. The welcome increase in sales of beers such as Fuller’s ESB and Ruddle’s County, following favourable publicity from CAMRA regarding their strength, spawned a whole range of higher strength beers.  For example, Eldridge Pope introduced the higher strength Royal Oak, whilst Courage brought back the legendary, but virtually extinct, Director’s Bitter. Allied Breweries response was a new beer in the form of Draught Burton Ale; essentially a cask version of bottled Double Diamond.

It is interesting that following the successful marketing of proper strength versions of well-known international brands, such as Carlsberg, Heineken and Stella Artois (re-assuringly expensive!), that 4.0% brands such as Carling and Fosters should prove so popular. Now we have four percent versions of Becks and Stella, proving that perhaps Colonel Whitbread was right after all!

My favourite four percent beer is Harvey’s Sussex Best; undeniably a classic and one of the best quaffing beers available, with a perfect blend of sweet juicy malt and dry earthy hops. Equally my favourite quaffing lager is Pilsner Urquell; a 4.3 % beer with a base of slightly caramelised malt, resulting from the triple decoction mash used in the brewing process, combined with the finest Saaz aroma hops from the Zatec region of the Czech Republic.

As I mentioned earlier, beers much above 5.5% ABV tend to be less for quaffing and more for sipping, and I find there really is a definite dividing line above this strength. For example, the bottled version of Fuller’s ESB, which weighs in at 5.9%, tastes sweet and slightly cloying compared to the draught version which is just 0.4% weaker at 5.5%. Similarly, the 6.0% beers produced by most of the large Munich brewers for Oktoberfest, also taste heavy and sweet (you can also taste the alcohol), especially when compared to the normal 5.0% Helles beers, available for the rest of the year.

The advent of “craft beer” has led to even stronger beers, with the Americans taking things to ridiculous levels with their nine or ten percent Double or even Triple IPA’s, to say nothing of their Imperial Stouts. I might enjoy the odd glass of these super-strength "hop-monsters", but they are not really suited for a session in a pub!

In the end it’s all about horses for courses, but for me, anything between four and five percent is just about right.


Matt said...

I think the breweries owned by working men's clubs, such as the Federation in the North East, also had an influence here, being the first to publicise the strength of their beers.

Paul Bailey said...

You are correct about the Northern Clubs Federation Brewery, Matt. Back in the early days of CAMRA, Federation were the only brewery in the country to declare the strength of their beers. Thanks for reminding me of this.

RedNev said...

Many brewers didn't publish the strength of their beers because, they claimed, the customer didn't want to know. In fact, it was they who didn't want their customers to know that they were serving ever-weaker beer. When CAMRA asked brewers for the strength of their beers, some happily obliged, but unsurprisingly others refused. CAMRA therefore sent their products off for chemical analysis and published those figures. The brewers concerned were furious, but it was too late: the cat was well and truly out of the bag by then.

There was a rumour doing the rounds when I was a student in the 1970s that Watney's Red Barrel could legally have been sold during the American Prohibition. I've no idea whether that's true or not, but we believed it at the time.

As for my favourite strength: 4.5% to 5.5%.

Paul Bailey said...

People often knock CAMRA, without realising all the things the organisation has achieved over the years. The work the group did, back in the mid-70’s, in publicising beer strengths, is just one example of this.

As I said in the post, it seems inconceivable now that this information was not available to previous generations of drinkers; but without CAMRA having driven this forward, going to the pub might still be a matter of guess-work, when it comes to beer strengths.