“3.5%” on a bottle label can be a depressing thing for the drinker to see. If I know nothing else about a beer other than the ABV, if I see 3.5% I assume I’m in for something lacking in excitement. A mild. The most boring of brown bitters. A thin stout. Even where “New World hops” are advertised, you wonder if they wouldn’t rather be starring in something better, like a respected actor taking roles in artless films to pay a tax debt.
There’s a small number of good examples of New World-hopped low ABV beers, but most are primarily cask beers and don’t carry over well to bottles, if they even try. In particular they feel thin and dry, which can be fine, but not if you have a taste for big oily, sticky American IPAs. I’ve yet to try a passable 2.8% pale ale.
But sometimes you need something tasty in a bottle which will not challenge your sobriety. For that I recommend Howling Hops Oatmeal Pale Ale. I know, it sounds awful: 3.5% porridge pale. An albino oatmeal stout. From Hackney, no less. But instead, what you get is a crisp citrus-hopped beer with a remarkable amount of body, and if you didn’t know better you might place it somewhere north of 5.5%.
I assume it’s down to the oatmeal. If it is, perhaps oatmeal is the magic bullet for low ABV pale ales. If it isn’t – and remember that I know less about the science of brewing than most people reading this – forget all of the above. It’s still a really good little beer.
I’ve been a bit wary about opening this bottle of BrewDog Nanny State, which I’d bought in a slight rush from Utobeer as they were closing up one evening a few weeks ago.
Nanny State is described as an “Insanely Hopped Imperial Mild” and is a very low ABV “beer” that was first produced a couple of years ago in response to a controversy over the the 18.2% Tokyo. I’m not sure how good a beer brewed as satire is supposed to be, but I thought I’d give it a go.
This bottle was actually of a newer, even lower ABV batch: the original Nanny State was 1.1% and this one was half that, at 0.5%. This version is supposed to be an improvement on the original, after a rare admission of remorse from BrewDog for their prioritising of publicity over taste in the original.
Having not tasted the 1.1% version, this lower ABV Nanny State first surprised me with its smell. I didn’t expect the rich, very hoppy, unusually malty aroma that reminded me of one of those big malty American IPAs. I remember speaking to a barman in The Ginger Man in New York last year and he said that the thing he disliked about Punk IPA was a lack of maltiness which he expected in most hoppy US beers. He would have no complaints here, based on just the smell.
It poured a caramel colour and there was initially a light bitter hoppy sweetness in the taste. However the thing that probably can’t really be got around in a beer of such nominal ABV is the thinness. The lack of body made it seem very fizzy. A slight raspberry taste in the bitterness was quickly overcome with the unrelenting fizziness. After knocking the bubbles out a bit however I was left with a slightly alkaline aftertaste.
I see that Martin describes it as a “quinine bitter finish“. Maybe that’s fair, but it definitely started to bore after a while: smelling that pleasant rich hoppy malty fruitiness before each taste, whilst always being disappointed when it reached the tongue.
I had started out thinking that I wouldn’t mind having this beer when I was driving. I had Becks Blue recently, the 0.05% lager which seems to be this decade’s Kaliber or Tennents LA, available in Loch Fyne, The Living Room and similar decent midmarket working lunch restaurants. Nanny State is an improvement on Becks Blue, but it’s a real shame that the fantastic smell doesn’t carry through to a correspondingly nice mouthfeel or a lasting pleasant taste.
All in all, if I’m not able to drink properly for whatever reason, I’d rather have a smaller amount of a good session beer (like the fantastic Hawkshead Windermere Pale) than a lot of this. But all credit to BrewDog for trying and trying again, like another famous Scot.
On our last day in Ireland, Kate and I went to see the Book Of Kells (the main problem with which, as an exhibit, is that it’s a book, and it’s therefore only open at one place at any one time), following which we fancied a final pint in a traditional Dublin pub before catching the bus to the airport.
We decided on Mulligan’s on Poolbeg Street, a dark, slightly bare looking pub with horse racing on the TV above the bar. The Dorling Kindersley Guide To Ireland made the bold assertion that it was generally regarded amongst locals as pouring the best pint of Guinness in the city.
Now, given Guinness’ method of dispense, I am aware that there is actually likely to be bugger all difference from pub to pub. It’s not hard to keep and in my experience is actually pretty consistent even in England, if you ignore all that “Guinness doesn’t travel” business.
Over the course of four days in Ireland I had naturally consumed Guinness in a number of different pubs: Moran’s Oyster Cottage in Kilcolgan; O’Riardins in Oranmore; McDaid’s off Grafton Street. Each of them were good and, for the avoidance of doubt, none had a frigging shamrock drawn on the head.
However I had noticed one variation: in around half of the places I had it, the Guinness had a slightly alcoholic kick in the back end of the aftertaste. I hadn’t noticed this before but Kate recognised it as well. I’m not sure why it would be present in some places but not others, and thought it might be related to different batches, different ages of beer or perhaps a slightly quicker turnover. In any case, I quite enjoyed the slightly boozier hit.
The Guinness we had in Mulligan’s didn’t have the alcohol aftertaste, and went perfectly well with a packet of cheese and onion crisps. However they also had a variation on Guinness that I hadn’t tried before: Guinness Mid-Strength, a 2.8% version of draft Guinness, which is normally 4.2%.
When we ordered a half for a side-by-side comparison, the barman said that he didn’t think it tasted any different. He wasn’t far off. Guinness doesn’t smell or taste of very much relative to bolder stouts and porters, so there wasn’t much of a loss in the taste department. However, there was very slightly more watery mouthfeel. All-in-all though, I think that any normal drinker, including myself, probably wouldn’t notice it was a different drink to normal Guinness if handed a cold pint in the pub. Erm, unless it said “Guinness Mid-Strength” on the glass.
It seems to me that a lot of thought has gone into making a beer that tastes as near as possible to normal Guinness but 1.3% less. It does beg the question as to why they bothered: were people really clamouring for a weaker Guinness? I know in some quarters it has a reputation for being a stronger beer than it actually is, but at around 4.1% it’s within most people’s definition of a session beer.
It seems that Diageo have been trialling Guinness Mid-Strength for five years now, and It’s being aimed at a market that want to drink during the week, for instance watching the football, but without suffering the “consequences”. I’m not convinced that further tinkering so close to a core brand that makes much of its long history, tradition and authenticity is the most sensible thing to do, nomatter how much that beer has actually been tweaked, altered and the method of dispense completely overhauled over the years.
With beer duty being halved in the UK for drinks of 2.8% or less produced by large brewers (small brewers don’t get any additional benefit), there’s more incentive than ever for Diageo to attempt to launch Guinness Mid-Strength in the UK. However, if the experience in Ireland is anything to go by, the saving on duty will go straight into Diageo’s profits and won’t be reflected in the price.
See this post for my reviews of a couple of more muscular versions of Guinness, which I hope survive the rise in beer duty for “superstrength” beers.