Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Strength to your elbow

It is nearly 5 years since we bought our very own alcohol retail outlet. It is just about exactly 3 years to the day since we first mashed in at our little brewery. It is also 2 years, and nearly 7 months since the owner of the little "Anglo-American" brewpub I am currently sitting in came to my hostelry and made up his mind to set up brewing "Craft Ale".

I have always found the flavour and enjoyment of stronger ales to be more satisfying. Sure, you can't "neck" them quite so quickly, but watery ale is just not my thing. In the UK, for many years 3.5 - 4.0% seems to be the acceptable strength for "session ale". Any strength above this falls out of the classification of session ale.

During past 5 years the number of times I have had a 4.1% beer on the bar and a customer has said they can't possibly drink anything over 4% staggers me. How can 0.1% ABV make that much difference? There are many 5% beers around that are fantastic examples of ales, but customers very often turn their noses up at them. If the reader is any good at maths, (or just the singular math, as they say here) there will be a realisation that 4 pints of 5% ale is exactly the same as 5 pints of 4% ale.

I'm sitting here in this little pub in the sleepy and snowy town of Oakridge in Oregon drinking, early afternoon, a 6.2% ale called Tanninbomb. A malty, not overhopped ale that has been aged with oak chippings in the cask. It's warming in this unusually cold weather and drunk carefully with responsibility it is causing me no adverse effects.

Equally interesting to me is the fact that I am drinking the pint in the manner that the Brewers Union Local 180 intends, dispensed through a sparkler. The sparkler, of course adding to the enjoyent. Indeed, the widespread disbelief that any citizen of the USA understands the traditions of northern English beer customs can hereby be completely dispelled. Ted really is serving true cask conditioned ale, no artificially introduced gas whatsoever, through handpulls and with a very interesting back bar visible cellar.

There is a tradition of brewing ale in the west coast USA with strengths 6% and up. 8% is not unusual and over 12% being frequently found. When I was in Belgium recently the best ales were in the order of 6-8% and above. Why then are we quite so bothered about ABV in the UK? I believe this is part of a blinkered mindset that is inhibiting the movement of the UK beer industry into much more interesting territory.

A very interesting time is being had here. The beer is great, if just a tad too hoppy even for me on occasions. I can't say that most of the food here is even OK in the bulk. The strong bias of fast food is apparent even in the places that state they are restaurants. Cooked vegetables don't seem to be an option and salad is widespread even in the depths of winter. But, visiting the Trail Head Coffee shop did find me consuming a El Bacondilla de Teodoro, Dedicated to Ted it would have to been rude to not try it, as it's his birthday. Very simply it's flour tortillas with cheese and bacon between, heated on a griddle, served with sour cream and salsa: it was scrummy. The Mexican biased food has always been the best in my 3 trips over here. Needless to say, The Brewers Union has good food with a significant proportion being fully prepared on the property, including the bread. The Etouffee that Nick made was good. Oh, and as Ted points out, Nicks Lasagna was great too.


Whorst said...

Our drinking culture is definitely different. Anything 5% and over is considered strong in England. There are some things to consider. Your measures are larger. Also, your people want to drink for several hours. Not have a couple of beers and a pizza, then go home. Isn't the strength of English beer largely due to tax? It's taxed on the starting gravity, isn't it? Which I can understand why a small brewery wouldn't want to brew strong beers.

Anonymous said...

Sounds great!

Alistair Reece said...

I have definitely been out of the UK far too long - anything below 4% tends to just be ignored, even then I like something about 5%.

Jeff Pickthall said...

When I was a beer retailer selling loads of Belgian stuff etc. I became habituated to less frenetic drinking of stronger beers so much so that pints of Brit stuff seemed massive and unmanageable. It took me quite some time to readjust to Brit-style drinking. Thankfully I've managed! Still, I favour smaller quantities of stronger beers for home drinking.

Phil C said...

The stronger the better usually - Last Rites (11%) is one my favourites as it weathers well. My overall favourite is Aventinus (8.2%). It is a great beer for the winter months too. It is twice as effective as a typical 3.8% beer - As for USA, are those chaps are taxed by the physical volume of the beer and not its strength?

Unknown said...

Yes it's true that the duty on beer in the USA is generally on total volume rather than alcohol volume as in the UK. Each state does tend to have variations as with many other factors, and is pointed out by several commentators on this blog.

I am not convinced though that cost of stronger ale is the thing that puts most off buying it. Even in the UK stronger ale is proportionately better value for money per unit of alcohol.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

tabular listing of state beer excise tax rates.

The federal duty rate is $7 for breweries that produce under 2 million BBL per year.

Boak said...

I think one of the greatest strengths of British beer is that it can deliver so much flavour despite being comparatively weak.

I do get cravings for something stronger, but I'll tend to drink that at home.

Most of my drinking takes place in the pub, and because of that, I welcome our conservatism about strength.

Paul said...

I've never understood that. My dad refuses to drink anything that's not bitter and nothing above 4.5% - apparently a 5% beer is far too strong! I tell him he's missing some terrific beer but to no avail. I've drank 8% stouts on pub crawls before and everyone else seems to think I'm going to have this bizarre idea that I'm going to be roaring drunk even though by the end of the night I tend to be sober than they are!

I much prefer stronger beers - gives it more flavour and character. Drinking 4% bitters and golden ales in winter gets a bit dull after a while.