It’s interesting how these products have evolved over the years to be seen as in some way disreputable, when originally that was never the case. Carlsberg Special was introduced in 1950 to commemorate a visit to Denmark by Winston Churchill, and was positioned as a distinctive, high-quality, premium product, which in most of Europe it still is.
I can remember the days when it was mainly available in 275ml bottles and broadly competed in the same market as “a bottle of Pils”. There was a couple who were regulars in a pub I visited – he drank pints of bitter, she drank bottles of Special Brew (poured into a glass, of course).
It is only relatively recently (maybe in the past 20-odd years) that it has come to be adopted as a favourite of street drinkers, and I would suggest mostly that they have come to Carlsberg rather than Carlsberg actively seeking out their custom. A classic example of this process is Buckfast Tonic Wine, which was originally intended as a pick-me-up for grannies rather than loopy juice for Scottish neds. I think Tennent’s Super (originally Special) may have similar respectable antecedents, although it is hard to see the Kestrel and Skol versions as anything but copycats.
And is it really that far removed in underlying concept from a certain 7.5% lager once produced by another Scottish brewery? Indeed, if you don’t think much of Special Brew, Carlsberg also have the much more highly-regarded 7.2% Elephant Beer in their portfolio.
Back in the 1960s, many brewers would have an Old Ale or Barley Wine in their range, often sold only in nip bottles, at a gravity of 1080 or above. These were normally favoured in pubs by older drinkers who wanted to keep up their alcohol intake while minimising the amount of fluid consumed, and weren’t in any sense associated with trouble. Back then, Robinson’s Old Tom and Whitbread Gold Label were competing in the same market, but one has now become a well-regarded “craft” beer with a number of spin-off variants, while the other is now an unpromoted zombie brand presumably selling to a dwindling market of codgers and grannies. And Old Tom is now the stronger of the two.
An interesting example of how over the years two beers have moved apart into largely different market segments. But craft brews for connoisseurs, and drunks’ delights, come rather closer than many might think. It also has to be said that many enthusiast writers about beer tend to be rather coy about the effect it has on you. If you can afford it, you can get ratarsed on Imperial Double IPA just as easily as on Special Brew, and I expect some do, while all the time believing themselves to be discerning drinkers.
Take, for example, Duvel, the 8.5% bottle-conditioned Belgian pale ale widely regarded as a world classic. It’s not cheap (although I have seen it on offer in Tesco) but, for its strength, it’s light in body and relatively easy to drink, and functionally will do exactly the same job as Spesh. And there’s McEwan’s Champion, a 7.3% brew widely available in the same offers as the rest of the premium bottled ales. You may not think of this as a craft beer, but in fact it goes back many years and is one of the few surviving examples of the historic Burton Ale style. Yet how many drinkers are choosing it for its heritage rather than its strength?
The lines are even more blurred in the cider sector. Weston’s are a well-respected independent cidermaker, whose flagship product is Henry Weston’s Vintage. It’s an oak-aged, 100% apple juice cider, weighing in at a hefty 8.2%. I hesitate to offer cider tasting notes, but this is certainly lighter in body and less tannic than some others on the market. It’s a classy product, a long way from Strongbow or Frosty Jack’s, but it’s often seen on offer for only £1.50 a bottle, which is less per unit than the normal selling price of Carlsberg Special. Are people buying this to share a bottle over dinner and enthuse about its subtle apple notes, or because it’s a tasty and cost-effective way of getting pissed?
Then there are all those genuinely artisanal West County farmhouse cidermakers who win numerous awards at CAMRA festivals. But you do wonder whether they actually end up selling much of their production to red-faced old boys who turn up at the farm gate in rusty Lada Nivas with a handful of plastic containers.
The dividing line between “craft” products and those favoured by “bangs-per-buck” heavy drinkers is by no means as clear-cut as many imagine, and it needs to be said unequivocally that the mere fact of being strong does not automatically make a beer or cider a bad or irresponsible product. If the playing field ends up being further levelled by minimum pricing, more craft brewers may be surprised to find their distinctive niche products suddenly becoming a tramps’ treat.