Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Strong Beer

It started before I was legally able to drink in a pub. Around that time, the early 1980's, there was a plentiful supply of Scotch. Sadly, this was not scotch whisky, but Younger's Scotch Bitter, which was, and I believe still is, awful. When I was around 17¾ I made regular attempts at pretending to be a proper man, the reader will be thankful that by now I've realised this is unlikely to happen, but back then I was nieve and believed that 8 pints of said beer would do the trick. It never did, it just turned me into a wretch, generally a retching one at that.

One pleasant evening I found myself in a remote Cumbrian pub. The un-clean-tal were all pleasant people, aromas of lanolin, sheep urine, wood smoke and crag moss filled the air due to the cosmopolitan mix of Crag Rat1 and upland farmer. On the bar there was a row of handles sticking up all proud and erect, most of them claimed to harbour some form of bitter or other. Not liking the option of turning yet again into the sort of ingloriousness my father would have disapproved of, not least of the reasons for this was the presence of my father, I opted for the aptly named Old Peculier.

With my regular peer group there was always the tales of conquest from the weekend. Invariably at least 1 and a full half gallons of some form of beer was consumed. Incredibly, these same people also managed sexual activity afterwards, if they were to be believed. This all tended to be a bit of a concern for me, even after a gallon I was still reasonably good with numbers, therefore able to determine consumption quantity, and generally found that a gallon of that nasty watery stuff failed to have sufficient density to remain at the correct end of my oesophagus. Amorous activities with anybody was highly unlikely; how on earth did anyone manage after half as much again?

The first evening on Old Peculier resulted in a very significant reduction in my ability to count. Obviously I became more intelligent, and was able to hold significantly in depth discussions with my father on the correct nomenclature for various parts of a dry stone wall, like you do. However, counting the number of pints failed me, or perhaps I didn't care, seeing as how my glass never really seemed to be empty, and nobody pushed me to drain my glass either. The beer had a warming feeling, tasted good and wholesome and made me feel oh-so-good inside. This was what drinking beer was about, being social, savouring a good thing and being content from head to toe.

Old Peculier is 5.6%. It is about 50% stronger than a regular session beer. I can probably drink a gallon on a good night, when you can find a good pub that has it on. I like beer at 5.6%, it's far more satisfying than 3.8% beer and I don't end up feeling like a water balloon at the end of the night. At 50% increase in alcohol a good measure would be 2/3 pint. The alcohol would be the same as a pint of 3.8%, more or less.

But there are not many pubs sell beer at 5.6%. Not many that sell beer over about 4.5%, unless we talk about premium lager, of course. Why is that? I think it is simple; we are far, far too focused on the pint as a measure. "A man can't drink a half, he's a puff if he does. A beer over 5% is far to strong. A 2/3 pint measure is just daft" - cognitive dissonance, that's what it is.

A hydrating pint of something refreshing can be such a fine idea. The first pint of the evening might as well be something light, bland and watery. The second might be too. After a couple of stupid American IPAs2 a palate cleanser in the form of a West Coast Blonde might be in order, before moving onto a Belgian Trappiste or a night cap of a barley wine.

Of course, the reason for this rant is the difficulty in finding, as a strong beer lover, strong beers in pubs. Also, as a brewer I prefer to brew strong beers, but they don't sell as well as I'd like them to, and I end up feeling guilty when the cask comes back with far too much ullage in it, a sure fine indication that the publican didn't make his margin, not least because he daren't put the stuff on the bar at the price it should be, the punters probably wouldn't pay it.

Now Stringers has written about the subject of strong beer too. He's right of course, but I don't want him accusing me of not keeping up, again.

I blame the pint, I really do. Although Scotch Bitter might have something to do with it too.


1A Crag Rat is a term for a tourist or more specifically the type of young hip yuppie that thought rock climbing on Cumbrian crags was cool - I used to be one, although I never was a yuppie.

2No, look, it's the strength and IBU rating of the beer I'm calling stupid.....


BeerReviewsAndy said...

Interesting stuff Dave, i'd missed Stringers blog post until you linked to it.

i think my original tweet was the result of a session in the pub/brewery with a couple of people who just didn't get stronger beers and while i can't sit and drink 12/13% beers all night its nice to have the option to dive into something with the complexities and flavours that those styles of beer bring.

around here it seems to be harder and harder to get a decent range of strengths and flavours in pubs and as a result you end up getting a lot of fairly average beer, no matter how lovingly crafted it is.

Curmudgeon said...

In mainstream pubs, as opposed to specialist beer pubs, it's generally difficult to find any draught ales above around 4.5% ABV. The strength of Old Speckled Hen was reduced from 5.2% to 4.5% to increase sales.

Bebedores do Gondufo said...

Very good.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

The opposite problem here, as you well know, Dave. That first night in Portland a year and a half ago furnished each of us with four pints. I don't think any of them were under 6%, and they were in 20 oz. jars. Good thing I stopped there.

What we do have is certainly range, although the low end could be better represented. One of the session beers I brought up to Portland last weekend was likely the only 3.6% beer in the city, and it was moving enthusiastically.

Ed said...

I don't often drink stuff over 4.5% in pubs. I like to be able to drink lots of pints with my mates. And when I drink stupidly strong stuff from bottles I prefer to pay shop prices rather than pub prices.

Unknown said...

Andy, yup, it's all pale watery stuff.

Mudgie, yes, the ABV is dropping and often not just in mainstream pubs. The pub in my story and many others in Cumbria that used to have a strong ale on the bar, no longer do.

BUL180 - I remember that night well, and you are right, a few slightly weaker beers would have been appreciated - it was still good though, we'll have to do it again.

Oh, and you might like to know I had asparagus for dinner.

Ed, of course you are entitled to drink what you want, but why has price got anything to do with it? Stronger beers generally represent better value for money - more bangs for your buck. In the Brewery Tap in Burton P2, at 8%, was £3 a pint. A half, at £1.50 gives the same alcohol as a pint at 4% in in my view is far more enjoyable. More pleasure than a pint for £1.50? you don't even get that in Wetherspoons.

My 6.2% beer was on sale in a local pub recently at only £2.60 a pint next to 4% beers at £2.50. Madness selling something 50% better at less than 5% more.

ChrisM said...

In the past week I've found 4 or 5 stronger beers (>6%) in Newcastle. The highlights have been Thornbridge Murmansk and Oakham Atilla. I'm very happy drinking halves, even when approaching the £2 per half mark.

StringersBeer said...

I remember going to [pub name] with [name of pal], he was driving so could only have the one pint of Peculier. Due to a misunderstanding I got him a pint of Best, which he drank, then got a pair of Peculiers for us. The OP was good but not a vastly more enjojable drink than the Best, so I got a couple more of it so that we could decide. We couldn't, and so went back to the OP. It all went a bit hazy then.

It goes without saying that we were involved in a quite unpleasant crash on the way home.

I know that's not the fault of strong beer. But I think it's why I steer clear of Peculier nowadays.

BeerReviewsAndy said...

Old P does strange things to you when consumed in large quantities, it must be something in it other than the strength, once (the day after a drinking a lot of old p) i completely forgot who i was and where i was for about 10mins, took a wrong turning and ended up in a rather random part of sunderland...

Curmudgeon said...

Many years ago I was in the Barley Mow at Kirk Ireton in Derbyshire, around 12.15 on Saturday lunchtime. A rather "young fogeyish" guy came in on his own, drank a pint of Old Peculier, and then got in his car and drove off. One hopes it wasn't the first of many…

Neville Grundy said...

I usually avoid 3 point something strength beers. 5% is probably about my favourite strength; I can drink that all evening, walk home and remove my contact lenses safely.

Isbell said...

Plenty of 6% on tap in the US, of course our pints are 16 oz. so more appropriate to the strength. I wish we could get weaker quality bear. Us driver would welcome a 3.5% beer that is not an American lite beer.