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.