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Wither Winter Beers? The Big Chill...

Added: Tuesday, March 1st 2005

Camra's newspaper What's Brewing enjoyed some lively debate recently on the subject of the ever-growing number of pale and hoppy cask beers. Such discussions can become passionate in the extreme: Camra debates often make the leadership squabbles in the United Kingdom Independence Party seem like church sermons without the fire and brimstone. Now another beery matter is exercising the real ale aficionados: the decline in the number of strong winter beers.

In the January edition of What's Brewing, editor Ted Bruning bemoaned the fact that such favourite tipples as Greene King Strong Suffolk and Marston's Owd Rodger were not available in cask this winter while Fuller's magnificent Golden Pride was on sale in only a restricted number of outlets in draught form.

Ted asked for a comment from me on this sad situation. A quick piece of research on my part found, in an ancient edition of the Good Beer Guide, that a free and independent Boddingtons in the 1980s brewed a winter beer called Old Strong that weighed in at 6.3%. "We wouldn't be allowed to drink that now!" I said. I added: "First the brewers became frightened of hops, now they seem frightened by alcohol. Are we - the majority, who can handle alcohol sensibly - the victims of the tiny minority of binge drinkers?"

The brewers are running scared of the media. Pubs and beer are in the spotlight as more and more horror stories, some wildly exaggerated for maximum impact, fill newspapers, the airwaves and the TV screens. Even the respected BBC Radio 4 Today programme weighs in with repeated binge-drinking stories that are always accompanied by the knowing aside that things can only get worse when "pubs are allowed to open 24 hours a day".

The programme doesn't report that licensing authorities can turn down applications for longer opening hours and that pub owners will have to submit detailed operating plans before extensions are granted. Most publicans will continue to choose hours that suit their trade. Many pubs - as a quick flick through the current Good Beer Guide shows - still close between 3pm and 6pm, especially in country and suburban areas. But that doesn't make "good copy" for the sensation seekers, which now sadly includes the Today programme. The result is that brewers and pub owners keep their mouths shut, retreat behind the barricades and pull the plug on darkly delicious strong winter ales for fear the media will accuse them of turning us into a nation of drunken sots.

And so another piece of the fascinating jigsaw that is British beer is under threat. We live in a cold northern climate. We need to be warmed in the winter. We may have radiators rather than log fires but we still need the comfort of good, old-fashioned strong winter beers as frost, snow and ice numb the limbs and thin the blood.

When I lived in London, one of the great joys between late autumn and winter was to find Winter Warmer on the bars of Young's pubs. It's a marvellous beer but at 5% has a relatively modest strength for its style. My local brewer, McMullen of Hertford, has won prizes for its wonderful 7% Stronghart: one of the pleasures of winter drinking was to regularly sip a small amount of Stronghart in the nearest Macs pub and marvel at the way in which the beer matured and deepened in complexity as the weeks past.

Alas, no Stronghart this winter. Macs has produced a weaker Boot Warmer, but the pride and joy of Hertfordshire has disappeared.

Instead of running scared of the media, it is time for brewers to stand up and be counted. They should be proud of their beers, including the strong ones. They should not allow a tiny handful of brain-dead morons, determined to wreck themselves on alcopops, deny the rest of us the right to drink sensibly and, when the fancy takes us, to drink powerful winter beers.

Unless we take a stand now, one by one we will either jettison our winter beers or they will be so denuded of strength that they will lose their style and their relevance.