Here are a couple of recent comments from Boak & Bailey’s blog, both from readers based in the US:
A North American observer will be struck by what seem uniformly low ABV in the blackboard menu [which advertised beers ranging from 3.6% to 4%]. Curious if you ran into any beers of 5% or more.
I’m looking forward to [Moor Beers] being more generally available here (especially given how difficult it can be to find anything under 6% locally – the tasty Old Freddy Walker notwithstanding)
And here’s a handy ready-reckoner. (Wot no ‘insert table’ widget? HTML view here I come. This may take some time…)
|P (I)||16 (US)||12 (US)|
What’s that? That, dear reader, is the question answered: the question being, why is (typical) American beer so much stronger than (typical) British beer? To be more precise, that’s a comparison of the amount of alcohol delivered by an imperial pint, a US (16-oz) pint and a US 12-oz measure, using the Imperial pint as the standard of comparison. In the US they have a sixteen-ounce pint, but with different-sized ounces. Two standard glass sizes are a US pint (5/6 of an imperial pint) and 12 US fluid ounces – 2/3 of a US pint, or 355 ml, or 5/8 of an imperial pint. (This is also the standard size of a bottle of beer.)
I don’t know about you, but when I order a pint it’s not because I think twenty fluid ounces (imperial) is just the right amount – eighteen wouldn’t hit the spot, twenty-two would be excessive… I order beer in pints because that’s what you do: “a beer”, if you’re an adult male, will almost invariably mean “a pint of beer”. (My OH and I used to talk about going for “a swift half”; even then I’d order pints.) So, when I think of three or four beers I’m thinking of three or four pints – and when I think of a session beer, I’m thinking of a beer I could drink three or four pints of without regretting it, which realistically means nothing very much over 4%.
What that table tells you is what you get, relative to an imperial pint, in a given ABV at 16 or 12 US fluid ounces: so a 4.8% beer is the 16-oz equivalent of a pint at 4%, or the 12-oz equivalent of a pint at 3%. See where I’m going? If your idea of a ‘session beer’ is one that leaves you comfortably merry, but not downright palatic, after four beers – and if your idea of “a beer” is 5/8 of an imperial pint – then a 4% beer is going to be no good to you at all: you’ll want a 6.4% beer to get the same effect as an imperial pint at 4%. Even if 16-oz measures are standard (see comments), you’ll be looking for 4.8% minimum.
Just on the basis of a 16-ounce glass, we’d expect US ‘session beers’ to range between 4.2% and 5.4%, for exactly the same reason that British session beers generally range between 3.5% and 4.5%. And we’d expect US brewers to have little or no interest in anything below 3.6%, for exactly the same reason that British brewers don’t tend to do much below 3%. On the other hand, we’d expect US beer drinkers to treat beer strengths up to 8% as perfectly normal, for exactly the same reason that British drinkers are happy going up to 6-6.5% (e.g. Wobby Bob, Elland Porter).
Then again, on the basis of a twelve-ounce glass (bottle; bottle, glass) you’d expect session beers between 5% and 7%, a ‘floor’ of 4.8% and a ‘ceiling’ of 10% – which not only makes a better story but seems more in line with complaints about ABV-crazy brewing, misunderstandings of ‘session beer’, etc, etc. Perhaps bottle sizes are more influential than glass sizes. Or perhaps it’s not all in the glassware!
In comments: a recent visitor to the US necessitates extensive modification to the original version of this theory by revealing that 16 oz glassware is in fact standard. Cheers, Ron!