beer reviews

BWOASA: What’s the point of ‘strong ale’?

Strong ales and ESB.

Let’s be honest, strong ale, the SA in BWOASA, is the least exciting part. We only included it, really, to give ourselves a fighting chance, suspecting that we’d find more strong ale than barley wine out in the field.

As it is, we’ve hardly encountered much at all – again, it is the wrong time of year – but even with only a few points of reference, a view of this niche is becoming clear.

Strong ale, AKA extra special bitter, tends to sit above best bitter in a given brewery’s range, in terms of both richness and ABV. Of course there are no hard rules but it seems reasonable to take 5% as the lower cut-off. Other words you might see on the packaging or at point of sale include ‘premium’ and ‘malty’.

Having checked in with Fuller’s ESB and 1845 at the start of the month, the next strong ale we encountered was Good Chemistry Extra Special, at 5.6%. Jess found it at Small Bar, and Ray had it a week later at the Drapers; when we compared notes, we found similar observations: juicy malt (but not juicy hops), roundness, brownness, liquorice, treacle and a hint of smoke. If you mixed Fuller’s ESB with Theakston Old Peculier, 50-50, this might be what you’d end up with. We both like it quite a bit, but it’s resolutely old-fashioned, and really demands snow and open fires, rather than blossom and lengthening days.

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We had a bit of a debate over Goff’s Black Knight, 5.3%, at the Bank Tavern in Bristol city centre. Ray took against it – ‘Dusty, unfinished homebrew, an absolute crystal malt nightmare.’ – while Jess rather liked it, and didn’t detect whatever got his hackles up. It certainly is a beer with crystal malt to the fore, though, having that assertive toffee taste we used to encounter constantly a decade ago but which seems to have all but disappeared from commercial beers. It reminded us of when hardcore geeks used to moan about beers being ‘twiggy’. Really, Black Knight is all about body: mouth-filling, nourishing, almost enough to creosote a fence.

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Palmer’s 200 at the Oxford in Totterdown is another blast from the past, a reminded of holidays in and around Lyme Regis in our twenties, when we’d groan at yet another line-up of brown beers in one damp old pub or another, and long for even the faintest whisper of hops. At 5%, it only just pushes its head out of best bitter territory, but looks, feels and tastes the part: red-brown, dense, sugary… one-dimensional. Boiled sweets and caramel. Sticky. We didn’t  mind it (the faintest of praise) but perhaps we’re developing Stockholm Syndrome, because our drinking companion ordered a pint on our advice and looked almost hurt, as if we’d played a cruel prank.

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What is the point of strong ale? Who really knows. To generalise, based on a combination of this recent experience and fading memories, it gets you drunk, and makes you feel full, but without offering much in the way of flavour, unless you really like 50 shades of sugar and something from the woodshed.

Of course the best examples have a certain magic about them but this style, perhaps more than any other, demands interesting yeast (Fuller’s) or some other sleight of hand to give it life.

7 replies on “BWOASA: What’s the point of ‘strong ale’?”

Mmm. Strong Ale is a super-strength Bitter? Not sure that’s been true historically, other than in Scotland.

We were fairly careful to avoid making any historical claims… This is just us attempting to reflect the reality of how it’s used by breweries in 2019.

My memory of the late 70s & early 80s is that there were basically two kinds of real ale, if you could find any kind of real ale: there was brown bitter (think London Pride) and then there was The Strong One (think Young’s Winter Warmer or Firkin Dogbolter). The Strong One was everything the bitter was, only more so – as well as being stronger it was browner, sweeter and denser, and harder to find. Thinking back, the Strong One wasn’t strong in our terms; it was usually around 5%, which meant – hushed tones please – you wouldn’t want to drink three of those! I remember hearing that exact phrase more than once.

In other words, the point of 1970s strong ales (to which the beers you mention here sound remarkably similar) was simply not to be sessionable – or not unless you were feeling brave, or you had something to celebrate, or ‘you’ were your rugby-playing mate Bryn (he’s mad, he is…). They were beers you wouldn’t want to stay on all evening, back when the normal way to behave down the pub was to stay there all evening drinking the same beer. Eheu fugaces eh.

In the early days of the “real ale revival” there was a vogue for heavy, malty special bitters such as Ruddles County and Everards Old Original which later faded away. But it’s a distinctive style, and perhaps B&B are confusing “beers that aren’t to our taste” with “beers that aren’t much good”.

Well, you’ve been following us long enough to know whether that’s something we’re prone to. I don’t think so.

Our comments above (which aren’t quite as negative as they might look at first glance, BTW) are really about where the style sits in the grand scheme of things, and why it might struggle to find a market. In general, if you’re after straightforward, aren’t you also after sessionable?

And (re: MJC, below) — it’s not even about hops, really, so much as complexity. ESB is great because at its best it has so much going on; Spingo is great because… It’s Spingo. It gets a pass. Too many others in this niche simply lack character and without hops to hide behind, it’s laid bare.

Yeah, I agree with that. I really liked some of those beers – Eldridge Pope’s Royal Oak, for example – they had a hint of the vinous nature of barley wines, but without it being dominant. Not session beers, not refreshing summer beers, but a bit of variety, something I’ve always found useful. And a pretty good palette refresher after several hoppy beers, too.
I rather miss some of them. Even Hobgoblin as it originally was. Beers you could dwell over a pint or two of, but didn’t demand too much attention, just quiet enjoyment – more sociable than today’s 5-6% beers in that sense.

Hmm, I think you need to use a different yard stick and put the hoppy one back in the drawer.
The point of these is to have masses of malty based flavours and body, vines fruits and, yes, crystal toffee if intended, plus alcohol warm of course. Hoppy, other than bitterness, to balance the malt isn’t required.
I would say ‘traditional’ rather than old fashioned and are generally my go-to beers with grapefruit hop bombs my last resort! Maybe this style is just not to your tastes as hop bombs are not to mine?
Interesting that at Tuckers Malting beer fest just gone (in new venue) Palmer’s Tally Ho won overall Gold, now that is a good strong/old ale!

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