For the purpose of this discussion I am talking primarily about mid-strength beers; those you would be happy to have a session on in the local pub or bar. When I first started drinking the strength of a beer was treated almost as classified information. Brewers were not obliged by law to disclose the alcohol content of their beers, so therefore chose not to. This might seem unbelievable to today’s drinkers, but it’s a fact.
It took the efforts of organisations such as CAMRA, along with those of the Consumers’ Organisation, to change things. The figures published initially, related to Original Gravity (OG); basically a measure of the amount of fermentable material present in a beer PRIOR to fermentation. The higher the OG, the stronger, in theory, the end product, but this depends on the degree of attenuation (how much of the malt sugars present in the wort, are converted into alcohol during the fermentation process).
It now seems inconceivable that this information was not available to previous generations of drinkers, and it is good to know that CAMRA played a leading role in bringing this issue to the fore.
So on to the question of the “ideal strength”. The conclusion I have reached after 40 years enjoyment of beer, is an ABV in the region of 4.0 – 5.0%. There are many beers either side of this band which are both good and enjoyable, but when it comes to quaffability, those beers much above 5.5% are more for sipping than for quaffing, whilst those at 3.5% or below, tend to be thin and lacking in body.
The Dutch company took a lot of convincing that a version of their beer, with a strength of around 3.4%, would sell in the UK; especially as the rest of the world took the normal 5.0% beer, and it took the intervention of no lesser person than Colonel Whitbread to convince Freddy Heineken that British drinkers just weren’t used to five percent beers.
Anyone who remembers these “bastardised” Continental “lagers” will recall they tasted like “gnat’s piss”; small wonder that the habit of adding a shot of lime (Lager and Lime), or a dash of lemonade (Lager Top), was popular with many drinkers. It wasn’t until I embarked on a round Europe train trip; a journey which took in Holland, Denmark and Germany amongst other countries), that I discovered lager could actually be enjoyable!
For example, Eldridge Pope introduced the higher strength Royal Oak, whilst Courage brought back the legendary, but virtually extinct, Director’s Bitter. Allied Breweries response was a new beer in the form of Draught Burton Ale; essentially a cask version of bottled Double Diamond.
It is interesting that following the successful marketing of proper strength versions of well-known international brands, such as Carlsberg, Heineken and Stella Artois (re-assuringly expensive!), that 4.0% brands such as Carling and Fosters should prove so popular. Now we have four percent versions of Becks and Stella, proving that perhaps Colonel Whitbread was right after all!
My favourite four percent beer is Harvey’s Sussex Best; undeniably a classic and one of the best quaffing beers available, with a perfect blend of sweet juicy malt and dry earthy hops. Equally my favourite quaffing lager is Pilsner Urquell; a 4.3 % beer with a base of slightly caramelised malt, resulting from the triple decoction mash used in the brewing process, combined with the finest Saaz aroma hops from the Zatec region of the Czech Republic.
The advent of “craft beer” has led to even stronger beers, with the Americans taking things to ridiculous levels with their nine or ten percent Double or even Triple IPA’s, to say nothing of their Imperial Stouts. I might enjoy the odd glass of these super-strength "hop-monsters", but they are not really suited for a session in a pub!
In the end it’s all about horses for courses, but for me, anything between four and five percent is just about right.