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!

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4 Comments

  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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