Monday, 26 April 2010

Bigger... Stronger... Louder... Better?

Ken Weaver has written a great piece on his Hop Press blog about the increasing strengths of US beer. The above graph shows the average strength of new beers added to Ratebeer over the last 10 years - it shows a marked incline for the US and a steady rise for non-US beers. In another graph on Ken's post the figures show that last year over 70% of new US beers added to Ratebeer were over 5.5% (compared to fewer than 40% for non-US).

The second paragraph of Ken’s piece perfectly explains his changing feelings towards strong, rare beer: “Perhaps that’s overkill. Perhaps I’ve had just one too many accidental fusel bombs, one too many bad examples of barrel aging, one too many “Imperial Weizens”, or one too many encounters with Tactical Nuclear nonsense. Have I waited in too many lines for limited releases? Have 12% hop bombs actually made me bitter?”

The whole notion of session beer is different in the UK and US, where something around 6% could be considered sessionable in America but put that beer on the bar in most British pubs and it won’t get touched. It’s a cultural difference. British beer culture revolves around the pub, around drinking a few pints after work, around socialising. It’s modest, reserved and controlled. We had ales before we had the more recent imports of lager and every British brewery has a 3.5-4.5% pale ale or best bitter, which is the beer they are measured against. Every US brewery is measured against their IPA, a 6.5-7.5% beer. It’s hard to separate US beer culture with lager, brought over and brewed by Germans in the late nineteenth-century, surviving Prohibition and evolving into the proliferate beers we have now. The current and ever-growing US craft beer scene is an attempt to create a new history for beer by radically pushing past what is already there. And they keep on pushing.

We are in a period of experimentation, learning what beer can do and what people will drink. Extreme beer is there to satisfy a certain niche, but the foundation of drinking is with the beers you can drink every day - that’s why 5% lagers are the biggest selling beers in the world (that and their enormous marketing budgets). The thing with stronger beers is that they evoke a bigger reaction, good or bad. It’s almost like the beer glass comes attached with a microphone and the higher the strength, or the more processes the beer goes through, the louder it plays back. It’s easy to shout about a 10% rum barrel-aged coffee and coconut imperial stout (I would so drink that) because the experience of it is an amplified one; a 5% stout, no matter how good, will illicit less of a powerful response, especially in those with the loudest voices. It’s interesting to look at the ratings websites too and you’ll see that very few beers under 6% make the top 100 list on Ratebeer or Beeradvocate; it’s not that they aren’t worthy, it’s that there’s almost an inhibition to say that something 4% can be ‘better tasting’ than something that’s 9%, even if both bring the same enjoyment.

Brewers are aware that bigger beers illicit more response so they brew them and sate the thirsts of the most vocal end of the market which creates an upward-spiraling trend for the extremes of experience. Purely by their volumes of flavour they pack a punch where a 3.9% ale can’t, but this isn’t necessarily a reflection on overall enjoyment. Like those love-hate foods, which always have big flavours, people either get it or they don’t and there are passionate people on both sides. Session ale is different to big beer; we approach them and drink them differently. Each suits their own occasion and style of drinking and there is room for them both but it is a little concerning to see the upward trend in strengths. Are these pushed up by a few one-off 10% beers, or are they genuinely rising? Belgium has always had a range of strengths from 4-11%, so these ABVs are nothing new, but their drinking culture doesn’t circle around the pint glass.

I’m all for the strong end of the spectrum, I like experimentation, I’m interested in new beers which push boundaries, but good session beer in the pub is more important, especially if we want to encourage new drinkers. What I hope this amplification of experience and flavour will do is push forward the quality of session beers, creating low-ABV beers which are packed with flavour but still balanced (I think the definition of balanced has changed in relation to beer but that’s another post). Great, full-flavoured beer which you can return to day after day is surely more important than a 10% IPA which you can only drink a couple of times a year?

Should these figures be alarming or is there just a current trend towards making strong beers because of the vocal chorus or reactions to them? Is the session beer dying in the US and is it changing in the UK? Or are we just experiencing an upward spike in strength before we see an upward spike in flavour? In fact, maybe we need to measure the levels of ‘flavour’ in beer and plot these over the last 10 years – would we see an increase...?


  1. Dredge you bastard, I've got half a post written on exactly the same thing! I'll put it up later once I've finished it anyway - grr! : )

  2. The figures are representative of their provenance, Mark.

    The heavy US bias and ticker groupthink on Ratebeer and BA drives them. The European brewers who get a look-in are those who are also following the trend of high-ABV, limited-edition Imperial this or that, preferable barrel-aged.

    Generally, America doesn't 'session'. A NYC friend of mine recently commented that nowadays he's more interested in balanced beer he can have a few of, not a big 'one and done' high-ABV beer, so perhaps there's a demographic factor.

    In the UK, I think we have a greater span of strengths than maybe 15 years ago, which I don't think is a bad thing.

  3. Although I've found Ratebeer a great research tool, I've always been conscious of what I consider to be its biggest flaw – its rating system doesn't include a score for "drinkability". Triple Imperial Barrel-aged Smoked Fruit IPAs do not score highly on drinkability, however entertaining they are.

    Drinkability is almost the same concept as "what volume of it would you like to drink?". Its absence skews RB's results in favour of high-strength beers.

    Brewers (well, the US ones in thrall to RB scores) therefore jump on the bandwagon of whatever style is getting the high scores, hence ever-increasing strength. The desire to pack in more flavour leads to higher strengths too.

    It annoys me that perfectly splendid UK beers get low scores. They would of course score highly on drinkability.

  4. Sid, I like that 'one and done'. If you don't mind I'll probably use that in the future! I understand the bias, but many 'raters' will drink and rate any beer, regardless of its fame. Still, the results will err on the side of the more extreme, for sure.

    Jeff, I hate that Rate Beer doesn't have a drinkability score, but at the same time I've had very drinkable 12% beers, I just couldn't drink more than one in a sitting.

    Rating beer objectively is very difficult. There's also a bravado towards the big names and high ABVs. The other thing is that a strong beer is likely to hold its character for longer than a low ABV beer, meaning that a bottle of barley wine will stay good longer than a cask of session ale, plus that cask of session ale is dependent on it being served properly and in good condition - the variability of it is likely to reduce scores overall.

  5. There are several factors that make stronger (and not necessarily extreme) beers rate higher.
    1- Many people think that the % of ABV is proportional to quality
    2- Stronger beers often pack more taste than session beers
    3- Many raters (and not few brewers) have little understanding of beer. To them everything must be complex, rich, full bodied and what have you. Anything that doesn't fit into that is not good enough.
    4- Price. In many countries the so called "craft beers" can be considerably more expensive than industrial ones, regardless of their quality. Many drinkers feel a stronger beer gives them more for their money.

  6. I don't know how useful comparing the US craft beer scene to UK pub life is. Most US beer drinkers do drink session beer - it's just that it is Bud or Miller light. There are still plenty of US neighbourhood bars that sell it. It's just that craft beer drinkers want nothing to do with it or those bars.

    How much beer downed in UK pubs is actually real ale? Isn't the majority of the stuff consumed in Britain also something the same particular sector of the UK would want nothing to do with? How different are the UK and US markets really?

  7. @Mark: Sure, help yourself. I nicked it off a mate in New York. ;-)

    This thing about objectivity is important on those ticker sites. There's a lot of pressure to 'follow' brewers du jour, which will be a moving target, but will usually include those knocking out high-ABV limited-run bottled spooge.

    My feeling is that same groupthink means reviewing sessionable foreign beer in good condition (no gimme when you see Ken Weaver's comments about quality and price of imports - see also the latest Brewers Assoc. market numbers. Imports lost share in 2009) will result in relatively lower scores.

    @Alan: You're right - the market dynamic is similar. Cask is a growing niche in a declining market, much like craft is in the US. I don't think Mark (or Ken) are trying to compare the markets, it's a trend Ken picked up when he crunched those RB numbers...

  8. Alan, I think there are similarities in general. The Bud, etc drinkers in the US are comparable to the Fosters, Stella, Carling drinkers in the UK - they know what they want and they aren't interested in craft beer/real ale. At the top end of the market you have the beer geeks who want varity of flavour, who want to drink the more extreme beers, etc. But the difference is in the middle with the craft beer drinkers and the real ale drinkers. The UK real ale drinkers, who probably stick to the same couple of beers all the time, won't drink beer over 5% very often. What would the US equivalent have? Or is the style of drinking just much different in the US? We have a lot of older real ale drinkers content with the cask best bitter and nothing else.

    Like Sid said, it's not necessarily about comparing UK with US, more about the changing influence, I guess, and the differences.

  9. I am slowly coming to the conclusion that the most innovative brewers in the States are the homebrewers. It is the homebrewers who are brewing milds over here, brewing best bitters and discovering the joys of low alcohol, high flavour beers. Possibly the highlight of my beer drinking last year, was a dark mild made in Richmond, Virginia, which was simply delicious.

  10. Velkyal, I genuinely believe that the best brewers in the world are homebrewers. The whole of the US craft beer scene is built on the foundations of good homebrew and it's being progressed further and further because of great homebrew.

  11. I've discovered that environments where "sessioning" (is that a word?) is practiced can be cultivated. Hence the 1.037 O.G. Welsh Mild that dropped into the fermenter yesterday. Jeff Alworth of the Beervana blog recently made a nice post about how the cost of the pint can affect consumers.

  12. The non-US curve can't really be called a "steady rise". Even the most generous reading of it only shows average strength soaring from 5.4% to 5.7%. And that's ignoring the period where it sat static at 5.6% for five out of six consecutive years.

  13. "Velkyal, I genuinely believe that the best brewers in the world are homebrewers."

    What utter, utter bollocks.

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  15. "a 10% rum barrel-aged coffee and coconut imperial stout"

    Oh, I drunk a bottle of that just the other week. It is called "Caribbean Rumstout" and the 11& stout is brewed by Danish Hornbeer. The ingredients includes malted barley, rolled oats, coffee, sugar, spices, coconut, hops and rum.