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...?