Beer expert Dean McGuinness joins Sean Moncrieff...
This week, our resident beer critic Dean McGuinness has been looking at alcohol strength in beer
Alcohol in Beer
Let’s get the first (and most important) point out of the way first. Drinking too much alcohol is bad for you. Binge drinking is bad for you. There is scientific evidence for this – the medical community are all in agreement about this, and the alcohol industry accepts this as fact. I’d even go so far as to say that Donald Trump’s government – that has denied global warming and that the Russians attempted to manipulate the 2016 U.S. election, despite overwhelming proof to the contrary – would accept that drinking too much alcohol is NOT a good thing.
So by talking about alcohol in beer, I am not encouraging anybody to drink too much alcohol – quite the opposite.
However, there are some other things that the ‘anti-alcohol’ lobby sometimes neglect to acknowledge. The first one is that drinking alcohol in moderation is good for you. There can be health risks associated with drinking alcohol to excess – this is acknowledged above. However, using the most simple measure possible – people who drink alcohol moderately live longer than people who completely abstain from alcohol. The medical community have tacitly acknowledged that arguing for total abstention from alcohol is neither likely to work, nor is it necessarily the correct argument.
So, the refrain is ‘Drink less, Drink better’ – i.e. enjoy your beer because it is a better quality beer, and drink this beer in moderation.
The good news on this count is that if you are looking for flavour in beer, increased alcohol often means more flavour. It is a simple fact that when you are consuming a highly flavourful product, you are more likely to be satiated (satisfied, or ‘full’) quicker. In Ireland, drinking culture sometimes rallies against this idea. Often, I would see somebody drinking a high flavour beer, and their comment might be – “That beer is absolutely delicious, but I couldn’t drink 12 pints of it”, as if a beer only “qualifies” if it can be drunk in quantity. Where this attitude is prevalent, we need to change our attitude and approach. More on this later, when we talk about glasses for serving higher strength beers.
The second piece of good news is that beer is arguably the best drink containing alcohol to select if you are looking to drink in moderation. ‘Normal’ (or ‘average’) strength beer is half to one third the strength of ‘normal’ or ‘average’ strength wine, and around one eighth the strength of the typical spirit. Even when a beer is ‘high strength’, it normally just reaches up to the lower level of wine, and rarely does so without a significant amount more flavour (which, as mentioned above, acts as a counteracting factor to over-consumption) coming in the beer.
When it comes to public policy on alcohol, Ireland has a reasonably intelligent approach – whether this is because it was designed this way on purpose – i.e. because policy makers applied great intelligence to the problem – or because policy makers are primarily concerned with the amount of money that they get out of beer tax, is not clear.
Firstly, when it comes to beer, excise (tax) is based on both the volume of beer in the container and the strength of the beer. This explains why higher strength beers in Ireland are priced at a higher level than lower strength beers – more tax because of more alcohol pushes up the price, and coupled with this, higher strength beers (in Ireland) are pretty much without exception higher quality beers, so the price is pushed up because of higher costs of ingredients, and higher costs in brewing. Nobody wants to pay more for any product, but the simple fact is that beer is an ‘affordable luxury’ – affordably because in the scheme of things, even the most expensive beers are not out of the bounds of most people’s pockets, and a luxury because it should not be something that you drink like water. Any economist will tell you that pushing up the price of something will encourage somebody to purchase less of it – so high strength beers have a ‘self correcting’ mechanism built in because of our alcohol tax policy.
If you are drinking in moderation, then it cannot happen that a bottle of beer that is costing €4 in an off-licence or €8 in a pub is going to cost you €80 for your personal night’s beer consumption. This has happened not because the beer costs €4 or €8, it has happened because you have drunk 10 or 20 bottles of it. DON’T DO THIS!! Again, we are back to “Drink less, drink better”.
Secondly, when it comes to how brewers are forced by legislation to communicate the alcohol strength in a beer, Ireland comes up trumps (no pun intended) especially when you compare our system to that in the U.S. Beers must display the alcohol strength (within, by consumer protection legislation, a tolerance of +/- 0.5% a.b.v. accuracy) on the container in which the beer is sold.
In the U.S., they have taken a slightly contrarian approach to this – some states in the U.S. state in their legislation that brewers CANNOT display the alcohol content on the container. The logic that they apply is that if a bottle shows that a beer contains more alcohol, that this would incentivise the purchaser to buy that beer just so that they can get more alcohol into their system. What it fails to consider is that the person that does not want a higher strength beer does not have access the information to be able to make an informed decision. A person, wanting a normal strength beer could find themselves drinking an Imperial Stout, Barley Wine, Double IPA or Bockbier. Such a person could find themselves with a beer that has twice (or more) the alcohol content that they were hoping for, simply because they didn’t have their ‘secret de-coder ring’ to decipher what the beer style is telling them.
When it comes to beer culture in Ireland, we are world famous for our attitude to alcohol, and not in a positive way. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our attitude to serving size and glasses appropriate for beer. In Ireland, a beer is a volume measurement. We have a ‘pint’ – even when a pint is not the appropriate amount of beer to consume. In one instance, I watched a man ordering an 8% a.b.v. beer on draught at an event. Even after it had been explained that he was not going to be served a pint because the beer was 8% a.b.v., and that it was only served in half pint glasses, he could not get his mind around this concept. “Give me two half pints, so” was his solution.
In Belgium, each beer has its own glass, and this glass is of a size appropriate to the strength of the beer being served. Never would one consider it ‘not masculine’ (an idea that drives some female craft beer drinkers bonkers, and rightly so!) to order anything less than a pint of the beer that one is looking for. 330ml, 274ml, 250ml or even 200ml serves are not unusual, particularly where the strength of beer suggests that this is what is appropriate.
In the U.S., the better craft beer bars also understand the appropriateness of glassware. For high strength beers, a ‘snifter’ glass (a glass similar to a brandy glass) is often the glass of choice. Such a glass allows the person to drink a measured quantity of a high strength beer, and also communicates that this is a drink to be sipped and enjoyed rather than ‘chugged back’. Using the right glass for the beer being served is not a matter of snobbery or elitism – it is a matter of common sense, and also the best way to enhance and present the beer for best enjoyment.
Widmer Brothers Reserve Old Embalmer
Beer Style - Barley Wine
Alcohol by Volume - 10.2% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Widmer Brothers Brewery
Brewed in - Portland, Oregon
A ‘Barleywine’ is an old English style that denotes that the beer is going to be above average alcohol strength. The expectation when someone hears the word ‘wine’ is that the alcohol content in the drink is likely to be somewhere between 9% and 15% a.b.v. Typically a barleywine is in the range of 8.0% to 12.0% a.b.v.
Barleywines can be ‘English’ or ‘American’ – the qualification relating to the style rather than where the beer is brewed. So, Old Embalmer – just to be confusing – is an English barleywine that is brewed in America. The term ‘English’ or ‘American’ is typically a reference to the origin of the hops that are used in brewing the beer. American barleywines have American hops in them – which can be ‘brighter’ in flavour, with citrus, tropical fruit and/or pine flavours being the most common flavours associated. English barleywines are brewed with English hops, and the result can be hop flavours that might be described as ‘earthy’, ‘mineral’ or ‘floral’.
To achieve a higher strength in the beer, it is necessary to use more barley in the recipe relative to the amount of beer that is brewed. A higher ratio of barley to water means that more sugar is present in the unfermented beer. It is this sugar that ferments into alcohol – so more barley is required to achieve more sugar which can be fermented into a higher alcohol strength beer. Higher alcohol strength beers can be achieved in one of two ways – fermenting out most or all of the sugar, and leaving none behind (which can result in a thin beer, where the alcohol character is aggressive, and the balance of the beer is not appropriate), or by having even more sugar present in the beer to allow for residual sugar to provide body and substance to support the alcohol on top of the fermentable sugar that provides the alcohol. Alcohol itself can deliver a perception of sweetness in a beer – coupling this with higher body and residual sugar, this can cause the beer to be quite sweet. This sweetness needs to be balanced out in some way – in the case of Old Embalmer, it is balanced out with a hefty degree of bitterness, with 75 I.B.U.’s being present, but in no way assertive in the beer.
Toasty, biscuity, sweet caramel and boozy molasses combine with rich dark fruits (figs) and a hint of vanilla on the aroma. This beer is distinctly luscious, with a full and velvety body on the mouthfeel achieved by both the residual sugar in the beer and the alcohol content (which can also contribute to perception of body). The sweetness in the beer is complex – toffee/caramel, and rich malt character combines with fruit flavours (figs in particular, but also soft fruits – tangerine or mango – behind this) and marshmallow in the finish. Madeira alcohol character is in evidence – soft and appealing, but the alcohol content is very much in evidence in the warming as the beer is swallowed. Old Embalmer is perfectly balanced – initially with a hefty degree of bitterness (75 I.B.U.’s which one would be forgiven to mistake for much less), with sweetness further balanced by peppery spice and earthy, floral hop flavours.
Old Embalmer is a beer that can be vintage. The beer that we are drinking today is already three to four years old – brewed in 2013. When it comes to vintaging beers, English Barleywines vintage much better than their American counterparts – the bright American hop flavours tend to diminish more quickly when vintaging a beer, and the balance remains more steadfast over time when English hops are providing the backbone of bitterness.
Beer Style - ‘Quadrium’ Ale (a variation on a Belgian Quadrupel)
Alcohol by Volume - 11.5% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Palm Breweries as a gypsy brew for brewer Hildagard Van Ostaden
Brewed in - Steenhuffel, Belgium
Whatever about a barleywine where there is a reasonable clue in the beer style name even if you are not fully familiar with beer styles, I pity the American that purchases a ‘Quadrium Ale’ from Urthel in a state where legislation does not allow for the alcohol content to be displayed on the label. ‘Quadrium’ is not a recognised style – rather an attempt to communicate that this is a variation on the Belgian Quadrupel style. Translating the style description into an alcohol content would require not only a James Bond decoder ring, the decoder ring would have to come with Q’s special ‘obscure beer styles software upgrade’ to allow a person not familiar with this beer to translate ‘Quadrium’ into an alcohol content of 11.5% a.b.v.
This beer is designed by Hildagard Van Ostaden – a female brewer reknowned in Flanders, Belgium for brewing innovative beer styles packed with wonderful flavours. The fact that this well above average strength beer is designed by a woman puts paid to the chauvinistic attitude that fuller strength beers are only for men – such beers should be drunk to be enjoyed, not in quantity, and the idea that only men can drink enough of a strong beer to make themselves incapacitated is probably a reflection of the intelligence (or lack thereof) of the man that might think this than any inherent logic in the argument.
Urthel Samaranth is a distinctly sweet beer that disguises its alcohol strength, but delivers enough flavour that one would naturally sip and enjoy this beer rather than drink it is quantity. Aromas of toasty malt with burnt brown sugar and chocolate come through. Again, the sweetness is complex, and with this beer the balance is very much allowing the sweetness to pre-dominate – there is much less bitterness to balance, and spice from the Belgian ale yeast provides the counterpoint in the flavour. Brown sugar, candy floss, caramel, burnt sugar, raisins and molasses provide the layers of sweetness in this beer, and the spice balance is in the form of subtle chilli heat together with cinnamon and nutmeg.