We have invented the term “sampling-strength” to cover those styles that are more complex and higher strength than session beers, but should not be considered as a strong beer. In this range are found some of the most characterful beer styles of all.
Before the global assault on beer drinking by anti-alcohol campaigners in the late 19th century, the regular ‘drinking’ ales found in most beer cultures tended to be 5.5-8.0% ABV, sometimes stronger. At this intensity a brewer can show off their skills, to consumers who are seeking fuller flavours.
Such ‘sampling strength’ beers are at the heart of the beer revival of the last thirty years, particularly in bottled format, or more recently canned. Their nature nowadays is determined by a complex interplay between European heritage styles, new North American trends, and the efforts of consumer groups, beer writers and social media to spread knowledge about what is out there.
Belgium is rightly famed throughout the world for its beer culture, in 2016 earning a place on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The country’s many beer styles reflect it brewers’ mastery of the use of yeast, all types of grain, and even the careful use of spicing, to produce beers of all strengths and varieties.
Before the First World War (1914-1918) a typical British drinking beer was around 5.5-6% ABV. Temperance-supporting politicians used the declaration of war as an excuse to diminish the strength of beer considerably; the inter-War period brought punitive taxation; the Second World War reduced production once more; and austerity in the 1950s continued to staunch beer’s revival.
The rapid advance of the French brewing scene to have more breweries than either Germany or the UK, has seen a geographical expansion of brewing too. Ales were once only found in the area between Strasbourg and La Manche (The English Channel), in the north and east of France, but are now made across the whole country, following every tradition and none. There remain local regional traditions, however.
North American craft brewers, experimenting in the 1980s with assertive hop varieties from the Yakima Valley region, fell in love with the story of India Pale Ale (IPA), the high-hopped beer exported from Burton-on-Trent to Bombay at the height of the British Empire. They therefore took its name to apply to a new breed of assertively hop-forward pale ales, brewed with attitude for an emerging and gratefully impressed constituency of beer fanatics.