Strength and Character

A lot of nonsense is talked about the strength of beer. There are implications from some quarters that brewing strong beer is irresponsible, especially since our nanny state seems intent on reducing the “recommended daily intake” every few years. I have even heard the ridiculous expression “kamikaze beer” – as though imbibing anything over 5% ABV will set the drinker on the road to self-destruction.

What some people don’t realise, though, is that the strength of a beer is part of its character. If a beer is designed to be light and refreshing, then 3% alcohol can be quite sufficient. If it’s meant to be a rich, full-bodied ale, then 6% is more like it. And the relationship is a natural one, for the more malt that goes into the mash, the more body, flavour and alcoholic strength it gives to the finished brew. It’s how you handle it that matters.

English draught ales for drinking by the pint are typically in the range 3-5%. Belgian beers, however, can range from 6-12% – but their glasses are smaller, 330 or 250 millilitres (a pint equates to 568 ml). It’s a different culture, sipping rather than quaffing.

It’s a seasonal thing*, too. On a hot summer’s day, I’ll go for a light (i.e. weak), hoppy ale and I might down four or five pints of it, especially after strenuous physical activity like bell ringing or haymaking. But on a cold winter’s evening I want something dark, strong and heart-warming and two pints will probably suffice. What really causes me to despair is some of those Christmas specials which promise to be rich and spicy but turn out to be thin and insipid because they are only 4.5%. If you’re going to load a beer up with extra flavourings, be it masses of hops or Christmas pudding spices, it needs that extra body and strength to complement them and maintain the balance.

Of course, not everyone is sensible. If you knock back eight pints of a 10% imperial stout, you’ll have a thick head in the morning and thoroughly deserve it. But, as in other areas of life, there’s no reason why the folly of the few should be an excuse for curtailing the pleasure of many.

* At least it is to me. I can’t get my head round the predilection of some people to pour ice cold lager down their necks whatever the weather and ambient temperature.

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