Most wines contain between 10.5% and 14% alcohol by volume (ABV), reflecting the natural sweetness of grape juice. The sweet liquid, or wort, fermented by brewers is far more flexible, allowing them to create palatable beers with a far wider range of strengths, colours and characteristics.
It is possible to find impressively flavoursome beers at any strength from 3% to 14% ABV, with a few beyond those limits. Even among the new low-alcohol (<0.5% ABV) beers a few show promise, though the lack of consistency in the methods of production and the absence of any theme other than being like style X or Y with less alcohol means we cannot define any distinct styles for such beers, as yet.
The beer classification systems designed for brewers or beer competitions all acknowledge the importance of strength, using either numerical rules such as percentage alcohol or in central Europe degrees (o) Plato, or else more loosely based concepts such as ‘ordinary’, ‘best’, ‘special’, ‘strong’ and others.
We have taken the view that from the consumer standpoint, leaving low-alcohol beers aside, there are three principle strengths of beer, which we term ‘session’, ‘sampling’ and ‘sipping’.
In most countries higher selling, lighter, mainstream types are known increasingly as ‘session’ beers. Typically these inhabit the range 4.0-5.5% ABV, though in countries with oppressive alcohol taxation, such as the UK, Ireland and most of Scandinavia the lower limit may be as little as 2.8% ABV.
In Belgium, the beer culture features a huge array of stronger ales (5.5-9.0% ABV), typically conditioned in the bottle, for sampling slowly and individually, in company, sometimes shared. Belgian brewers are though masters of “balance”, deploying techniques that ensure the grain flavours in these beers are not so heavy as to make them difficult to approach.
Many countries are also seeing growing interest in various styles of beer designed to have fuller flavours comparable with wines, though often achieving this at relatively lower strengths (8% and up). Some of these are revived styles, while others have taken lighter styles and intensified them. These are often served in smaller measures (15-33 cl) and are intended strictly for sipping.