The question answered

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)
3.2 2.7 2
4 3.3 2.5
4.8 4 3
5.6 4.7 3.5
6.4 5.3 4
7.2 6 4.5
8 6.7 5
8.8 7.3 5.5
9.6 8 6
10.4 8.7 6.5

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!


  1. Ron Pattinson
    Posted 17 June, 2015 at 9:44 am | Permalink | Reply

    American beer is stronger because they have a flat rate tax.

    • Phil
      Posted 17 June, 2015 at 12:19 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Not convinced – over here they just charge more for stronger stuff. Over there they seem to charge more for everything.

      *Is* the 12 oz glass standard, by the way? I reckon you’ll know if anyone does!

  2. Ron Pattinson
    Posted 17 June, 2015 at 1:09 pm | Permalink | Reply

    There’s little or no difference in price between a Double IPA and a Session IPA. Most pubs I visited in California served 16 oz. measures as standard, though the really strong stuff would be in 8 oz. or 12 oz. servings.

    An example, a US pint of 8% Pliny the Elder cost me the same as 5% Death and Taxes in Toronado last week. Both were $5.

    US geeks are constantly moaning that Session IPA costs as much as the full-strength stuff.

  3. Rob
    Posted 18 June, 2015 at 3:44 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I’m in San Francisco too. Price definitely doesn’t seem to come into it – it’s generally the same across all beers. And any differences don’t seem to have any correlation with anything sensible, like alcohol content! As for standard size pours, there seems to be a correlation between how geeky the bar is and the variety of pour size. “Normal” bars go with 16oz, strongly geeky/hipster bars will pull a random number from 5-16 for each beer. In general, I’d say 16 is common but smaller pours are frequent enough that no one even bats an eyelid when they ask for a 5.5% beer and it arrives in an 8oz glass.

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