Most European countries have a tradition of stronger beer styles, intended for sipping, not quaffing, which appear mostly or exclusively during in the winter months, some as late as Easter. Because lager yeast add fewer flavours to a beer, these tend to be ales.
It is possible to brew and condition beers up to a strength of around 16% ABV, without resorting to distillation, fortification or freezing out their water content. However, brewing, fermenting and conditioning beers to above 8% ABV involves either compromising their quality or instead, using clever, complicated or time-consuming techniques.
Strong beers fall into two main categories. The first sort are brewed with added sugar and then fermented through, for the purpose of intoxication. The second have great complexity, often originating from a specific local tradition, or an historic change of market circumstances. Here we will concentrate on the latter type.
In the northern hemisphere most of the new grain harvest needs to be warehoused between August and October. Traditionally this meant that grain stores needed to being emptied of excess stock, from the previous harvest. In many countries, this led to traditions of brewing harvest time or autumnal beers of sampling strength, and of Christmas, New Year, winter and even Easter brews of higher strength.
The beer styles of this type that survived the 20th century include many that are among the world’s most distinctive. With the exception of Doppelbock, the best of these styles are all ales.
To appreciate the Belgian way of appreciating a beer, it is essential to study Belgian café life at first hand, in particular the reverence with which some beers are sipped. With several of the country’s finest beers coming in at over 10% ABV, this is understandable.
The punitive taxation applied to beer in the UK throughout the past hundred years has limited the ambitions of British brewing in the 20th century, but nonetheless the country has a richer heritage of stronger ale styles that most others.
None of the other styles of strong beer in the world have a living link with our brewing heritage, though it is a credit to the experimental nature of many of today’s better craft brewers that they have been created. Some are indeed masterpieces of ingenuity, leading in every case to some great examples of brewing prowess.