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.