Over the last few months I’ve been enjoying a wide variety of high strength beers (oh, how I suffer for this blog…) – in general they’ve varied from very tasty to spectacular, but even in my small sampling there have been some that have fallen a little short.
So I found myself wondering how much was down to the strength of these beers, and how much was down to the skill of the brewer. After all, there are some magnificent beers around that don’t reach that magical 7.5% line. Fortunately, the awesome Windsor & Eton Brewery made it very easy for me to explore this curiosity by producing their Black IPA, Conqueror, in two different forms.
On the left we have the original Conqueror, coming in at a very respectable 5.0% ABV. On the right (and sensibly in a smaller bottle!) is Conqueror 1075, brewed much stronger and just shy of my Monster line at 7.4%.
They’re unsurprisingly very similar in the glass; dark brown, fine bubbled and very little head. The 1075 is a little darker but that’s about it. The original has a rich, complex nose – dark fruits, orange blossom, and an undercurrent of toasted malt. The 1075 is much richer with black treacle sweetness almost drowning out that floral hoppiness, and some hints of coffee in there too. Purely from the nose, it’s clearly the bigger beer.
In the mouth, the original is quite light; a gentle sweet start to it, more of those blossom notes and even a hint of light orange fruit and a deep hop bitterness throughout leading through to a surprisingly long, dry end. It’s a cracking good IPA (well, aside from the colour!)
The 1075 is much thicker, almost syrupy to drink. In a way it follows the same journey as the original – a sweet start, subtle fruity notes and a lingering hop bitter tail but the balance is different. The hops are less pronounced, or perhaps more drowned out by the sweetness. The sweetness is richer, darker and quite fruity – plums rather than oranges. The hops don’t hang around much, but they cut the sticky sweetness back perfectly. An equally cracking beer, although less like an IPA.
To be honest, the result of this comparison is not entirely what I expected to find. I had anticipated coming to the conclusion that strength doesn’t matter as much as we might imagine; that you can find disappointing strong beers and wonderfully rich and complex weaker beers, and that it was all down to the skill of the brewer.
But here we have two great beers made by the same clever chaps in Windsor and tasted blind, I’d have fingered the strong beer just from the nose. Strength somehow allows a good brewer to bring out something extra that you just don’t get even in a well crafted, smaller beer.
And maybe that takes us back to the whole reason I started the Monster Beer series. Strong beer isn’t always about getting drunk; it’s about delivering a unique and special taste.