There is a British myth that, apart from perhaps Belgian beers, British “real ale” is the the best beer there is. Now much as I do love traditional English ales, in all their varieties (Ordinary/Sessions, Specials, Extra-Specials, in a beer garden, by the river, on a summer’s day, etc.), there is so much more to “foreign muck” than the assorted lager / pils much branded around US, Europe, Far East, Australia and Scandinavia. And in the right circumstances I’ve nothing against a light sharp pils / lager / beer either. The issue is variety.
But there seems to be something about licensing laws or market regulation that makes so much of the possible international variety simply unavailable in the UK – just one or two branded versions of each type. I can get just about any British (or foreign) beer in the US, I can get just about any British or US beer in Norway for example. And so many local / micro-breweries. But the availability of foreign beer in the UK is extremely limited. I’ve tried importing directly from various sources, to see what the problem is.
Now the US is a large market, so it can sustain small % of specialist (local & import) beers and still be a significant market. Norway is a small market by volume, but beer is already expensive, taxed according to alcoholic strength, and available only through state-controlled “Vin Monopolet” however, provided you are prepared to pay those prices, just about any beer is available, of any strength brewed in Norway or anywhere. The market is concentrated through the monopoly and supports huge variety and quality. (Wines too incidentally.)
Any kind of premium beer – UK or foreign – is very hard to come by in the UK, and beers over 5% or 6% appear to be impossible to buy anywhere retail, except direct from brewers; brewers like say BrewDog (see below). Is this legislation – real or imagined – that says we can’t be trusted to buy strong beers, even those strong on flavour and quality as well as alcohol ? Or is it just supply and demand. I’m still researching that. Maybe there is a stigma left by ideas like Carlsberg Special Brew, where the sell was simply the extra alcohol – get drunker faster as it were. (BTW I support the concept of minimum-pricing for alcohol to save us from cheap binge drinkers, and if higher strength demands higher duty, so be it. The market would then regulate consumption.)
BrewDog are consummate marketers – with gimmicks around their weirder and stronger beers, and in the quirky naming of all their beers in fact – not to mention the whacky little videos on their web-site. (Blogged about a few before; Sink The Bismarck 41%, Tactical Nuclear Penguin 32%, etc.) And no doubt these examples of their beers are as strong as possible, almost (explicitly in fact) to prove they can do it – sake yeasts, repeat-cold-concentrating to achieve distilled strengths and beyond, but without distilling, etc. Drink with extreme care.
Anyway, I’m no expert, but I’ve been working my way through IPA’s of the world in recent years – and some of the stronger ones are magnificent. A good base-case starting point is (say) US brand Sierra Nevada (a standard IPA) which has in fact become widely distributed, (no doubt some big brand now distributes it, brewed locally to a licensed recipe ? tell me I’m wrong) but there are so many like it in the US, Australia and everywhere except the UK. India Pale Ales, Pale Ales originally brewed a little stronger for long-distance export maturity and life in warmer climes. There are however many variations that take the idea further, “Double IPA’s” stronger, hoppier, more-intensely maltier, ever more varied, triple, quadruple, till you get to “Imperial IPA’s” – approaching or exceeding wine strengths, and with all those additional qualities in the nose and on the palate. There are of course several good UK brewers of IPA’s and double / strong-IPA’s (Fuller’s Bengal Lancer 5.3% for example, Marston’s too), but that’s where it seems to stop.
The stronger they get, the better they seem to get, and the less volume you need to drink to enjoy them. Some favourites are North-Coast Red Seal (only 5.5%), BrewDog’s Punk IPA (5.6%) Nøgne Ø IPA, Nøgne Ø Imperial IPA#500. The latter is 10% alcohol, not in fact the strongest, but probably the best. BrewDog’s Hardcore Imperial IPA (9.2%) is the closest to it in all respects – also very very good, and available in the UK (as well as in Norwegian bars that also sell Nøgne Ø – so you can compare the two side-by-side).
PS Nøgne Ø also do (did) two of my other favourites. Sweet Horizon (14%) and Dark Horizon (18%) like after-dinner-liqueur and desert-wine-Imperial-IPA respectively – switch-off beer-mode in your brain before drinking. Just right for Christmas, but now sadly available only from a smuggler’s secret stash near you.
And those are just the tip of an iceberg. Competitive pricing supports variety and quality, if the market is large or concentrated enough.
[Post Note : Apparently Tesco's Finest American Double IPA is in fact BrewDog's Hardcore IPA relabelled ... to be verified ... true according to that reliable source The South Wales Echo. According to The Grocer, BrewDog were surprised to discover this, but it is indeed true.]