Beers are often referred to as ‘strong’, ‘light’, ‘heavy’ or ‘mild’. These categories are not necessarily binding, and many systems have sprung up for categorising a beer by strength. However, there are some broad systems that can be used, and that still apply to some styles of beer, which are useful in identifying the alcoholic strength and broad taste of a beer. Though these terms sometimes defy logic (a heavy beer being light coloured and of medium strength) a few pointers can set you in the right direction to a better understanding of the wide variety of beers available.
Very broadly, a beer only a little over 4% was until recently considered to be a strong beer or an ‘export’. These terms are often applied to lagers, with those brewed for the U.K. market having been less strong than those brewed for the continental market and then exported to the U.K. This, however, is where things start to get confused, because any can of beer with ‘export’ written on it, in English, was clearly produced for the U.K. market under the pretext of having been brewed for the continental market, many of these beers may be actually brewed in the U.K. under license from a foreign competitor. This reflects the popularity of export lagers over U.K. ‘session beers’ – a beer of around 3.5% – 4% volume, with many foreign and domestic brewers introducing export style lagers where they once only brewed session lagers, or ceasing to brew session lagers altogether.
Over time the distinction between strong export lagers and less strong home lagers have become fazed out, as drinkers in Britain have started to favour the stronger ‘export’ style lagers. The ‘export’ tag has become less significant along with the mass proliferation of varied European beers that have entered the home market. It is now often taken for granted that a lager generally weighs in on the stronger side of 5% alcoholic volume.
Another form of classifying beer has its roots in Scotland where beers are categorised as ‘Mild’, ‘Light’, ‘Heavy’ and ‘Strong’ ales:
- Mild Ale are dark in colour, with relatively few hops, and was traditionally consumed by heavy industrial workers, such as miners. Mild beer is still enjoyed in industrial regions, despite the closure of many industries.
- Light Ale, in Scotland, is dark in colour, bottled and of a low to medium strength. In England, the term purely denotes a beer that is bottled.
- Heavy beers are more popular in the North of England and Scotland, and are medium in strength and pale in colour. Although the taste is ‘full’, it is not ‘heavy’ as such, being full of subtle flavours and aromas.
- Strong Ale, thankfully, is exactly what it says, a dark and very strong beer, somewhere in strength between a porter and a barley wine, so between 6% and 9-10% volume.
Admittedly, the best way of determining the strength of a beer is to look at the label! However, the classifications pointed to above outline the changes that have occurred in the beer market in recent years. Notably, the classifications, ‘Mild’, Light’, Heavy’ and ‘Strong’ Ales were also referred to, respectively, as 60 shilling, 70 shilling, 80 shilling and 90 shilling beers – their price reflecting their strength. More notably, there are pockets of the country where the above distinctions (and their respective ‘monetary’ names) would still be recognised, although you’d have to pay a little more these days for your pint. Whilst change in British drinking habits is rife, traditions continue, and it is important that regional varieties of beer are preserved – along with the culture that thrived among them.