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21-07-2015, 09:13
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It recently seems to have dawned on some beer bloggers that drinking lots of high-strength craft beers, even if only in halves or thirds, does have a tendency to get you drunk (http://boakandbailey.com/2015/06/trousered-on-craft/). This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but in reality the availability of a wide choice of strong beers in all kinds of styles is a fairly new phenomenon on the British beer scene. Perhaps it needs a fundamental reconsideration of how beer drinking is approached.
If we go back to before CAMRA was formed, the number of beer enthusiasts in Britain, in the sense of people who would make a point of trying out new or different brews, was minimal. Of course a lot of people enjoyed drinking beer – and they drank a lot more of it than we do now – but pretty much all of it was mild and bitter of various kinds, and little much over 4% ABV. Many brewers produced old ales around Christmas time, but virtually none had a draught stout, where Guinness enjoyed an effective monopoly. The exotic (and often strong) foreign beers from Belgium and Germany that now cluster on the shelves of your local Tesco were scarcely ever seen.
In the early years of CAMRA, little changed. The organisation, after all, was primarily interested in methods of storage and dispense, not in beer styles. Yes, it did like to imply that real ale was made of authentic natural ingredients, and keg beer was made from chemicals, but that was always at best a gross exaggeration. Its first ten years were basically spent championing the products of the independent family brewers and the real ales still made by the Big Six. There was more emphasis placed on stronger premium bitters – most notably with the introduction of Ind Coope Burton Ale – but the general mix of styles remained much the same. While lager steadily gained market share, much of that was even weaker than ordinary bitters.
The 1980s saw the first wave of microbreweries, but again they were generally just trying to brew their own versions of the classic British beer styles, often well, sometimes incompetently. One noticeable change was the growing number of cask stouts and porters, but they were generally of fairly sessionable strength. Then we had the rise of golden ales, which eventually became regarded as a beer category in their own right. But they were really just a subset of “bitter”, and indeed there had previously been some distinctly pale bitters such as Boddingtons, Stones and Theakstons. Even the more recent trends of “very pale and very hoppy” and New World hops still essentially stayed within the conventional categories of style and strength.

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It’s only fairly recently, spurred on by the increasing influence of US craft brewing, and the rise of craft keg, that especially strong beers and experimental flavours have become commonplace. Looking back through the archives, I don’t think I ever mentioned “craft beer” before 2010. To be honest, this trend doesn’t really float my boat, and on the rare occasions I really want something strong I’ll go for an Old Tom or something Belgian. It’s also something that runs contra to the current movement towards lower-strength beers. I’m certainly not against it, though, and enterprise and innovation always deserve celebrating even if they’re not my thing.
Traditionally, the ordinary pub drinker would rarely touch anything above about 5%, except maybe for a half of Old Tom or suchlike at the end of the evening. However, if you want to enjoy a series of Imperial Stouts and Double IPAs, you just can’t jug them back like cooking bitter. You have to pace yourself, drink thirds if available and maybe have water spacers. It’s nothing like the classic Friday night out and, if anything, more like a whisky tasting session. If that’s what you want to do to catch all these flavours, fair enough. But it bears very little resemblance to the way beer is enjoyed by the vast majority of the drinking population, and it could be seen as another way of cutting the enthusiast off from the mainstream. He’s no longer drinking just better beer, he’s drinking completely different beer.

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