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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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

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

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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”.

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

  3. 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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