Monday 29 June 2009

Extreme Beers

I read on other blogs about the writer's liking for extreme beers, whether it is Innis and Gunn's latest bourbon aged effort, or some outrageous stuff from Brew Dog (again), or Thornbridge (not quite so often) and now, I am urged (for example) by Pencil and Spoon to look out for extreme beers from Ramsgate Brewery. Well I won't be. They do nothing for me, probably as I rarely drink beer at home and anyway, when I look at some of the fearsome strengths, I imagine the beer taking big bites out of my liver.

Now I do enjoy the decent drinking strength beers from Thornbridge and Brew Dog and by that I mean up to 5%, but with very few exceptions - like when I'm in Belgium for example - I rarely drink much stronger beers. Now of course I enjoy outrageously hoppy beers from Phoenix, Pictish and Mallinsons to name but a few, but you can keep the extremes of barrel aged this, imperial or double that. I don't want to have to struggle to pick out a million clashing or just plain wrong flavours, often excused by that overused word "complex".

Variety is the spice of life and I am happy for those that like that kind of thing and it is good to see British brewers pushing boundaries. I also recognise that we have a long way to go to rival the odd geekery of the USA, where good old supping beers are despised, but there is an element of that creeping in. It isn't for me.


Jeff Pickthall said...


Under-appreciated maybe. Despised - no.

Dubbel said...

Bah! By restricting yourself to an arbitrary 5% or below you're missing out on so much. By adhering to those rules you would never have tried White Shield, Thomas Hardy, Old Tom, Centurian's Ghost, Jaipur... The list goes on.

You wouldn't flinch at a glass of 13% wine so why shy away from a 6% ale? If you don't like a beer because it's too hoppy, phenolic, 'complex' etc. then fine but to dismiss it outright based solely on alcohol content and without trying it doesn't sit right
with me. There are many fine strong ales out there that are a joy to sup where character of flavour belies strength.

At the risk of oversimplifying the matter it seems to be partly generational. I spot the old geezers in the pub squinting at the pump clips, immediately dismissing anything over 3.9%, regardless of style or flavour. A product of drinking in the unidimensional keg-dominated 70s perhaps?

Tandleman said...

Jeff. Good call. That's a much better way of putting it.

Dubbel. I don't restrict myself in that way, but as I said, with very few exceptions. Jaipur is one of them. Old Tom I can take or leave, but I enjoy Moonraker and if Ron Crabtree is still brewing his 5.6% English Guineas Stout - count me in for a few. But these aren't extreme beers.

And while I may be an old git, I have drunk and do drink all kinds and strengths. Maybe there is a generational element as you say. I'll leave others to chip in on that.

Mark Dredge said...

Will a 330ml bottle of 9% stout take more of a bite out of your liver than two pints of 4.5% pale ale?

And just because it's strong/extreme/super hoppy doesn't mean you HAVE to drink and think about the 'complexity' or flavour profile, it's still just a beer, after all.

I think that some of the American drinking mentality is creeping through over here, but that is only with a very niche market - the majority of pub drinkers still want 5% and under (to be honest, if I'm in the pub for a few beers then I shy away from anything 6% or above still, unless it's something rare or 'unmissable'). But I think that shift is coming in the reverse in the US too, with more session beers being brewed.

Personally, I'm a big fan of big beers. I like to try and see the possibilities of what beer can be and do. Conversely, I also like to see how much flavour brewers can get into sub4% beers such as Brewdog's How To Disappear Completely or Edge, or all these very pale and very hoppy ales - I think the proliferation of these beers is improving the session beers.

I do think there is a generational aspect to it as well, but I think this is more dependent on whether the drinker is someone who wants a few pints down the pub at night or whether they want to open a bottle or two at home - there are different mentalities of drinking.

As for the Ramsgate stuff, they have their core range of sub5% cask beers, the others are just an extension of the current beer fashion. The red wine barrel aged barley wine is pushing new boundaries for the UK and new is not necessarily a bad thing. Give it a try, you might be surprised... :)

Tandleman said...

Fair enough points Mark. But I'm a pub man really, so that's probably why I feel the way I do. If I drink at home it tends not to be something challenging, but something like a wheat beer in the summer or a decently hoppy pils which does me fine.

I'm OK with the genre as there is a niche for it, but you can still push boundaries in beer without ageing them in genuine used feta cheese casks or whatever. It can just end up being a bit silly. And elitist.

Mark Dredge said...

I definitely agree about the elitism but then some wines are fine wines and others are table wines - and this isn't to say that cask beer cannot be a fine wine, if you get what I mean!

I like my esoteric beer but for others it is way too much. Some people order a korma, others like a vindaloo. The fact that I am currently more of a bottle drinker than a pub drinker is probably why I see this from a different angle to you.

For me, it works if the beer is genuinely improved by whatever 'extreme' methods are used, whether it's more hops, more strength or barrel aging. I have had some bad extreme beers but to the same extent I've had bad sub5% cask ales.

I think the good in this is the breadth of choice and hopefully the overall increase in quality products. And as long as it tastes good then I'm happy whether it's aged in genuine 1000-year-old cherry tree casks with half a bar of gold or if it's a 4% best bitter made with passion!

Unknown said...

I like being silly. And elitist.

Seriously, I'm becoming more enthralled with stronger beers. Why can we not drink less volume of a stronger beer in a pub? As is pointed out, it's the way it's done in Belgium.

It's a cultural thing and perhaps also a generational thing. It is the down side, in my view, of our pint culture.

Don't worry Tandleman, the good old British session beer has a long way to go before it dies out. I'd would like to see more "extreme" beers in pubs, personally, but it's not going to happen soon.

Neville Grundy said...

I usually prefer beers to be 4.5% or more, and tend to avoid anything below 4%, but this isn't a hard & fast rule. For instance, I think Prospect Silver Tally at 3.7% is excellent.

Mark said...

'...downside .... of our pint culture'???

I like drinking pints, quite a lot of them actually, it's a really nice sensation up to a point, but I absolutely do not like getting drunk, and haven't since I was in my early 20's. What exactly is the downside of that? Light session beers and dark milds are what going to the pub is all about IMO. Strong beers are for sipping, contemplating, and best done in the privacy of your own home ;)

I'm not an old git either.

Ed said...

I have pretty much two separate drinking tastes: <5% in pubs, >5% from bottles at home. I get pissed too quickly if I drink stronger beers down the pub, but I often like to try stronger and more exotic beers when I'm at home.

Unknown said...

People drink wine in smaller measures in a pub. A stronger beer can also be drunk in smaller glass sizes. It makes sense to me.

I can't understand why you might do one thing at home and another in a pub. Or why the Belgians can drink from 33cl glasses in a bar, but us Brits can't.

I do consider myself an old git. And I do like drinking in pints when it's a session ale. Sometimes I might have a pint of something stronger, if I'm in that sort of mood.

Gazza Prescott said...

"Or why the Belgians can drink from 33cl glasses in a bar, but us Brits can't"

It's the old Macho culture again - a bloke is gay if he drinks halves. Sad, but true, and 99% of the dimwits without the guts or brains to argue do what peer pressure tells them.

Right, off for a pint then... a FULL pint... ;-)

Paul Garrard said...

If it's cask and it's a pint I think I'd prefer to stick to under 5%, but I do enjoy the odd one off stronger beer, especially when it is in a 33cl bottle.

James, BrewDog said...

This is perhaps the most insane and circular argument I have ever seen.

Who cares what strength a beer is? Why is this even important?

Arbitrary distinctions and iron curtains like this imposed by CAMRA are what has held back innovation in British Brewing and means the category remains stuffy, traditional, folksy and depressed (with a few notable exceptions).
We don’t buy into this nonsense and consider ourselves free to follow our muse. We can do so many different things at 9% that we simply cannot do at 4.5%

A stronger beer usually has more flavour and takes a bit longer to work through.
If a beer is stronger you drink less of it. It is a pretty simple formula to compute!
Beer does not have to be drunk out of a pint glass, indeed this is a terrible and unflattering way to serve any beer.

People with these type of attitudes are missing out on so much!

John Clarke said...

Sorry, but what's all this "imposed by CAMRA" malarkey? I'm not aware that CAMRA has imposed any restrictions on or restricted innovation in British brewing (unless you are going to start banging on about why does it only support cask conditioned beer, why is it obsessed with gas etc etc - if so please spare us as we've all heard it before).

Personally I think there is a place for beers of all types and strengths (bottled and draught) and I enjoy them all. What I would say though is that one of the great achievements of British brewing is to produce great tasting beers of modest strength (I'm not saying it doesn't happen elsewhere but then it's more the exception that the rule , I think).

And if you don't mind me saying so, the notion that using a pint glass is a "terrible and unflattering way to serve any beer" is a load of old cobblers in my opinion.

Tandleman said...

James - "Arbitrary distinctions and iron curtains like this imposed by CAMRA are what has held back innovation in British Brewing"

No James. British brewers have held back British Brewing. They could always have done different things but chose not to. I applaud people like you that push the boundaries, but it has shite all to do with CAMRA either way.

I don't speak for CAMRA on this blog. It's just my opinion on certain types of "extreme" beer - mostly barrel aged ones - . I like your passion on this though, so more power to your mash tun. For those that like your more "challenging" beers - good for them. You brew something for everyone, so we won't fall out. I simply prefer some of your more modest strength ones. You do want people to drink them too I assume?

MicMac said...

@ Gazza "It's the old Macho culture again - a bloke is gay if he drinks halves. Sad, but true . . ."

It's only true if you're not prepared to rail against the culture that (I presume?) you disagree with.

Ditto the "fruit beer is for women & lightweights only" argument (I could point some heavyweights to James Brewdog's 12% Strawberry oak-aged Stout or a serious fruit-lambic & they'd probably not get up again).

I totally disagree that a pint glass is "a terrible and unflattering way to serve any beer" though. (I presume you'll be sending out branded halfs to all of the pubs & fests you supply cask beer to now, James? ;~)

I'm so used to drinking beer in pints & enjoy a "session" where I'm not going to fall over after, that I rarely drink anything over about 5%ABV in pubs (often lower), apart from an odd stronger night-cap half or pint.

I do have a couple of CAMRA gripes - supporting Budvar but not Meantime, etc is peculiar; sanctioning as "real ale" beers that have undergone sterile-filtration & reseeding for bottle-conditioned seems odd too.

But to blame them for a lack of innovation in British brewing ignores that we would probably have next to no good beer in the UK were it not for CAMRA.

Betwixt Beer Co., Wirral.

Boak said...

Having just recovered from yesterday at the American beer festival in the White Horse, I'd like to echo the point made by John earlier:

"What I would say though is that one of the great achievements of British brewing is to produce great tasting beers of modest strength"

I drank some truly fabulous beers yesterday, then came home and threw up. I probably won't want to drink for a few days now. I did stick to halves, but when you're in a pub, you will get through a certain number of drinks.

So, the vast majority of the time, I'd like to stick to session beers (I was delighted to go to the Edgar Wallace recently and see that they had four ales on under 4%). That said, we all agreed yesterday that sometimes those American (and American-style) beers give you a whole different drinking experience, and it's a good world to be in where you can have a bit of that as well...