ABV – How l’eau can you go

Since last October’s cut on the rate of duty for beers of 2.8% abv and under, a new range of lower-strength beers have appeared – earlier this year Tesco began to stock a set of 12 new or reformulated beers, all at 2.8% abv. Unfortunately the duty on beer of 7.5% and above was raised. The difference in beer duty is significant and it’s no wonder brewers have been quick to take advantage of the lower rate.

If you release a batch of 5 hectolitres of beer of a strength 8.0 per cent ABV, your Beer Duty liability is £928.40… for beer of 2.8 per cent ABV, Beer Duty liability will be £130.06

I wasn’t enthusiastic about 2.8% beers, prefering stronger beers, often those above 7.5% now under threat. I’d also been burned by my experience with the 1.1% Brewdog Nanny State, a beer I bought 12 bottles of before finding it was an undrinkable gimmick. The only low strength beer I could recall enjoying was Manns Brown Ale. Oh, and bitter shandy.

Then I had a pint of Redemption Trinity – not a 2.8% beer, but one packing an impressive punch for its 3% abv, citrus hoppy with a good body yet at a strength perfect for going the distance on long summer days – and I was keen to know how the new range of lower strength beers would compare to it, or to Manns Brown Ale, a beer brewed in Britain since 1902.

Lower strength beers:

Tolly Cobold – Tolly English Ale 2.8%
Tolly English AleBrewed by Greene King, evident in the familiar yeasty aroma as the beer is poured, it is uninspiringly described as ‘full flavoured’ and ‘brewed using a complex mix of hops’. Like many of the Greene King beers that seem to be variations on their IPA, it’s an amber coloured beer, malty with some caramel flavour, not much carbonation but fresher than the often stale tasting IPA, and although it has a thin body, that’s forgiveable in a beer of this strength and it’s not the thinnest of these beers. Not a bad beer, not a particularly inspiring one, but drinkable. That said, I left half a glass of this to stand for an hour and there was very little taste left. I didn’t finish it.

Marston’s – Pale Ale 2.8%
Marston's Pale AleThe label carries the equivocal description ‘traditionally brewed for flavour and taste’. It smells like beer, looks like beer and tastes like beer that’s been left standing overnight and needs pouring away. It’s slightly creamy with some bitterness and malt evident, but I found this to be soapy and unpalatable and could only get through a half before tipping it. This beer has just appeared on the shelves of my local Waitrose with Skinners Betty Stogs making way for it – a move as unwelcome as if Cadbury Roses replaced the Golden Barrel with Turkish Delight.

Fuller’s – Mighty Atom 2.8%
Fuller's Mighty AtomThis is more like it – I can actually smell and taste hops! Not quite the ‘floral grapefruit and plum notes, with a spicy overtone’ mentioned in the blurb, but hops nevertheless.

After pouring the head dissipates quickly, the bitterness softens and the flavours soon fade but it maintains carbonation and some citrus flavour to the bottom of the glass. I’d try this again – the first of these beers I finished a pint of.

Cains – Calcutta Pale Ale 2.8%
Cains Calcutta Pale AleAn immediate metallic twang faded over subsequent mouthfulls, but never really disappeared and I found it hard to enjoy. If water has memory, some of these lower alcohol drinks are like water with a vague recollection of beer. This one did seem to get better, brief traces of hops and malt as the beer warmed but I think I’d have preferred a shandy.

Maybe that’s what I should be trying here – which beers make the best shandy – rather than searching in vain for a tasty lower strength beer. Would I drink this again? Probably, but only because it came in a 4 pack.

Adnams- Sole Star 2.7%
Adnams Sole StarAt last! A lovely hoppy bitter with flavours that aren’t held back by the low alcohol. At 2.7% it’s lower in strength than many of these beers but this cascade hopped ale holds its flavour and body. My enthusiasm for this beer could have been in part down to the setting – the Queen’s Head in Newton, a fine 18th century ale-house that has apparently appeared in every edition of the Good Beer Guide – or maybe because it was served straight from the cask. Certainly it has an unfair advantage over the canned and bottled beers I’ve tried so far, but really this beer is in a different class. I’d choose this over the other Adnams ales that were available too, because it’s just perfect for a lunchtime drink, especially when visiting a village pub means driving afterwards.

Oakham Ales – CB 2.8%
Oakham CBA beer that came about from a competition to ‘design a concept and brand for a new beer’, brewed by Oakham with two students from Cambridge’s Anglia Ruskin University “specifically to attract young female drinkers to the ale category”. The 2.8% beer, using Pacific Jade and Galaxy hops to give ‘hints of peach and passion fruit’, launched at the Cambridge Blue this week. It has a reassuringly familiar Oakham Ales hoppy aroma and plenty of the tropical flavours promised, along with a lasting bitterness. I gather they were aiming for a sweeter beer, but the bitterness worked for me, a very light but moreish beer. It’s a shame this is to be a one-off brew, I can imagine this being perfect for a summer daytime session.

Manns – Brown Ale 2.8%
Manns Brown AleManns Brown Ale is a beer that’s been brewed in Britain for over 100 years, albeit a stronger beer then of at least 4% abv. Still, it has quietly offered a low strength beer long before the recent brews appeared.

A very sweet beer, deep red in colour, creamy and surprisingly rich. Especially for a beer that cost only £1 for a 500ml bottle (from Asda – a local beer shop has delisted it). Every time I have this beer I enjoy it.

This beer seems to be best known as the one Mr Creosote orders in Monty Pythons Meaning of Life and is shown on his table.

…and the usual brown ales?
No – I can only manage six crates today

Younger of Alloa – Sweetheart Stout 2%
Sweetheart StoutThis beer is like a home-brand cola – flat, sugary and makes you wish you’d paid extra for the real thing.

The label is what makes this stand out. Apparently the same picture of Venetia Stevenson has been used for over 50 years.

I drank a whole can of this at a barbeque last summer before opting for a shandy. I couldn’t even finish more than a few sips of it this time.

Summary

In a word, thin. Unsurprisingly, many of these beers are weak and watery with not much flavour, but there is reason for optimism. The Adnams Sole Star and Oakham CB2 are a pleasure to drink and have lasting flavours, and old favourite Manns Brown Ale still delivers. None of these beers quite match the Redemption Trinity, but then at 3% that beer is not eligible for the lower rate of beer duty. That said, Redemeption Brewery themselves seem to think the answer is Trinity shandy…

.
Update:

Since writing, I’ve had another notably good lower strength beer, Brentwood BBC2, a 2.5% beer voted Beer of the Festval at Cambridge Beer Fest in May.

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