Beer Guide - Strong Ale

An Introduction To Strong Ale

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Strong ales are generally anything that is 6% alcohol by volume or higher. 150 years ago it was common for many beers to be this strength. However in Britain the combination of the industrial revolution and war time laws led to authorities reducing the strength of beers to around 4%. These days strong beers have a pretty poor reputation in the UK where they are tarred with the same brush as the likes of Carlsberg Special Brew or Tennants Extra - the preserve of people attempting to get drunk as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

However strong ales are the toast of the craft beer movement, regularly receiving the highest ratings on websites such as RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. This has encouraged microbrewers to brew increasingly strong beers. One of the most extreme examples is Brewdog who brew the majority of their beers at 7% abv or higher and have experimented to see how strong it is possible to make a beer through freezing off the less alcoholic bits (so far they've managed to get to 55% abv). Whilst Brewdog have produced some fine beers, there is definitely some macho "stronger is better" posturing going on which has angered councillors and politicians. The brewery do at least have a sense of humour and responded to the criticism by making a 0.5% abv beer called Nanny State.

No such problem affected the development of beers in Belgium where most beers appear at 6% or above and many move into double figures with a potent mix of spices to match. The difference is not that the constitution of the average Belgian is such that they can outdrink their European counterparts - more that the idea of savouring a beer doesn't seem as strange as it would elsewhere. They also don't suffer the cultural handicap that comes with expecting all beers to be served in pints - thereby allowing stronger beers to be served in more reasonable sizes.

Belgian Strong Ale

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Most Belgian Strong Ales have developed from the abbey ale styles covered earlier. However during the 20th century new beers started appearing that were distinct from the monks brews. One of the first was Duvel, first brewed in 1919 as Victory Ale to celebrate the end of World War 1. The beer used a strain of McEwan's yeast that had been used in Scotch Ales sold to allied servicemen during the war. However this was combined with ultra pale malts and a 3 month ageing process to produce a light blonde coloured beer that looks like a lager from a distance. However a quick sip of this 8.5% abv ale will set you straight - not for nothing is it called "a devil of a beer". It's dry, malty, subtly spicy flavour has spawned many imitators such as Hapkin and Satan Gold.

Far less subtle are the blonde beers from the Huyghe brewery - founded in the 1920s. Their signature beer is Delerium Tremens, named after a shaking frenzy caused by the withdrawal of alcohol. It captures the intoxicating thrill of the modern strong Belgian ales - it's herbal counterpart Delerium Guillotine is equally good.

Belgian brewing is some of the most experimental in the world and you will often find beers with 6 or 7 types of malt, multiple fermentation stages and additional ingredients tossed in that could enrage purist German brewers. Some of the finest darker beers include De Ranke Noir De Dottinges which has flavours of coffee, raisins and plums and De Proef Reinert Grand Cru - an absurdly complex beer with a sweet hint of Black Forest Gateaux. However you will also find beers like Van Steenberge Bios Piraat which are provide intoxication but precious little in the way of taste.

Five To Try -
1. Moortgat Duvel Rood
2. Ellezelloise Quintine Ambree
3. Achouffe La Chouffe
4. Huyghe Delerium Tremens
5. St Rieul Grand Cru

English Strong Ale

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England is usually associated with fairly weak beers. Therefore English Strong Ales are often seasonal or special occasion beers - winter warmers of 6% abv or more that stave off the cold. Beers like Youngs Christmas Pudding, Hook Norton Twelve Days and Wychwood Plumduff are fine examples of dark, fruity concoctions rolled out at Christmas that are designed to soothe you next to a crackling log fire. They may even have hints of port or sherry to their robust alcoholic flavour and are a darker, sweeter and heavier version of English Premium Bitters.

Paler English strong ales can be a bit of minefield and many English brewers put a foot when trying to ramp up the strength of their beers. One of the more successful is Brakspear Tripel, a beer that is fermented twice using a double drop method before having a third fermentation period in the bottle that gets it up to 7.2% abv. The resulting beer has a big malty aroma and a hint of liquorice. Other beers are, to my taste, less successful and lack depth of flavour. Durham Bede's Chalice is an English attempt at a Belgian Triple. It's an amber coloured 9% abv beer that is overpoweringly alcoholic and has a one dimensional tangy malt flavour with no real hint of the coriander the brewers added. Oakham Ales Atilla has been aged for 6 months but has the same problems.

Some of the finest English Strong Ales are made north of the border and were discovered by accident. The William Grant distillery was interested in ageing a whisky in casks that had contained beer. A local brewer made a strong ale specially for the project that was destined to be tipped down the drain at the end of the process. However they discovered that the flavour of the beer benefitted from time in the cask. The Grants whisky never got far, but the oak aged beer - now called Innis & Gunn - is going from strength to strength with a range of different cask finishes available. Maybe more English Strong Ales should be discovered by accident.

Five To Try -
1. Brakspear Triple
2. Youngs Christmas Pudding
3. Wychwood Plumduff
4. Innis & Gunn Blonde Oak Aged Beer
5. Wentworth Rampant Gryphon

Scotch Ale

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What's the most important thing about a beer? The taste? The look? The aroma? In the case of Scotch Ales it seemed price may have been of upmost importance to early brewers as many of the beers were named after the tax levied on them. Hence you have ales named 50/- through to 80/- reflecting the different strength (or sometimes Light, Wee Heavy, Heavy and Strong). The beers are traditionally strong and malty in flavour. This was principally because hops are hard to grow in Scotland and so brewers used them sparingly. The only way to preserve them with so few hops was to make them stronger than normal. There aren't that many Scotch Ales being produced in Scotland anymore, though many microbreweries turn out an 80/- or a wee heavy to toast their heritage. One of the best is made by Black Isle who use smoked bog myrtle in place of some of the hops, giving a complex flavour of sour caramel biscuits.

You are more likely to find Scotch Ales in Belgium. During World War 1 many Scottish servicemen were based in Belgium and the local brewers started tailoring beers for them. Instead of reducing the hops they added more sugar to counter the bitterness, creating strong, sweet dark ales that thrived even once the Scots headed home. The Belgian versions weigh in between 8% and 10% abv and are a mix of imported UK brands like Watney's Scotch and homegrown creations like Gordon's Scotch. One of the finest, and typical of the Belgian style, is MacChouffe which tastes of whisky, sugar and caramel.

Other beers that attract a Scottish Ale or Whisky Ale tag use malt that has been smoked over burning peat. These beers have a smoky taste akin to Islay whiskies. These beers are particularly popular in Europe. Fischer Adelscot has a rounded, slightly spicy, whisky flavour from the bottle, but tastes fairly rough when served from a can. Schloss Eggenburg MacQueens Nessie is much smokier. Neither of these brewers seem quite as worried about the tax as the original Scottish brewers.

Five To Try -
1. Achouffe MacChouffe
2. Fischer Adelscott
3. Black Isle Scotch Ale
4. Red Hill Scotch Ale
5. Klein Duimpje Hillegomse Hangkous

Barley Wine

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Barley Wines are beers that are roughly the strength of wines but are made using traditional brewing ingredients such as malted barley. They are usually between 8% and 12% abv in strength, with a dry, malty, alcoholic flavour and can be pale or dark in colour. The term Barley Wine was first popularised by Bass for their No. 1 ale at the start of the 20th century. The beer is matured for a year, creating a dark beer that tastes of raisins and figs. The beer is only made occasionally these days and so collectors have kept vintage bottles from 1902 and 1929 called King's Ale and Prince's Ale which apparently still taste pretty good a century later.

Other Barley Wines are a little easier to find. Sam Smith's Yorkshire Stingo is similar to Bass No. 1 - dark in colour and tasting of a woody, treacle coated Christmas pudding. The brewery also do the pale Strong Golden in tiny 180ml bottles. Fullers Golden Pride - produced in Burton On Trent like Bass No. 1 - is a pale beer with a hint of orange and has been called the "Cognac of beers" but it rapidly becomes overpowering. The heavily hopped Anchor Foghorn ran into American licensing issues with using the word "wine" on a bottle of beer and so the makers removed a space to call it "Barleywine Style Ale", which satisfied the authorities.

Some European strong ales get referred to as Barley Wines. The most widely available of these is Dubisson Bush - known as Scaldis in America after legal action by the Busch brewery. At 12% it bills itself as the strongest beer in Belgium and is so strong it almost tastes vinegary. The seasonal Bush Noel is much nicer with melting butter and toffee apples to the fore. Even finer is the dark Anker Gouden Carolus Christmas which has flavours of pear drops, liquorice and nutmeg.

Five To Try -
1. Anker Gouden Carolus Christmas
2. Samuel Smith Yorkshire Stingo
3. Dubisson Bush Scaldis Noel
4. Landtsheer Malheur 12
5. Flying Dog Horndog

Old Ale

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Scotch spirits have to be aged for at least 3 years before they can be called whisky. A similar ageing process is where Old & Vintage Ales gets their names from. These dark, malty ales are traditional matured at the brewery before being blended with a younger beers. The Greene King Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale is a blend Old 5X - a 12% abv beer aged for 24 months in 100 ton oak barrels - and fresh BPA. The result is fruity, dry and bitter with coffee and caramel. They also blend Old 5X with Old Speckled Hen to make Old Crafty Hen and with a specially brewed pale ale to make Suffolk Springer. Few breweries still undertake oak ageing and so these three beers are well worth seeking out - they are the only way to try Old 5X which is not available commercially unblended.

Oak ageing takes place on a smaller scale up in Scotland. Harviestoune takes bottles of their thick, viscous, bitter chocolate Old Engine Oil and leave it in casks that have held Highland Park whisky. This creates Ola Dubh, a wonderfully complex beer with peat, spice, caramel or coffee coming to the fore depending on the vintage you choose. There is no oak ageing for Robinson's Old Tom, first brewed in 1899 and recently voted best ale in the world. This 8.5% abv strong ale tastes like an alcoholic malt loaf with blackcurrent and raisin coming through in the finish. There is also a velvetty version mixed with dark chocolate.

A number of strong dark or ruby coloured bitters such as Theakston Old Peculiar and Black Sheep Riggwelter are often referred to as Old Ales, even though there is no apparent ageing taking place with the beers. The Australian Coopers Extra Strong Vintage Ale allows you to let the beer age at home as the brewers reckon it should improve for up to 5 years. However it's strong malty fruity taste and burnt carbonised edge are still good to drink straight away - which shows you don't always need to wait for an Old Ale.

Five To Try -
1. Harviestoun Ola Dubh Highland Park 40
2. Black Sheep Riggwelter
3. Greene King Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale
4. Coopers Extra Strong Vintage Ale
5. Robinsons Old Tom