Ale fans can dive in at the deep end

A dark ale

A dark ale

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Our ale expert Andrew Nowell takes a look at the stronger side of brewing...

With Dry January gone and the annual post-New Year threat to our pubs and brewing industry receding, it’s time to celebrate.

And what better way to do so than to crack open a bottle or pour out a half of something truly special, a drink that would grace any occasion?

Strong ales are a fairly nebulous concept, especially in Britain where we have got used to a beer culture which largely revolves around lower-alcohol ales more suitable for session drinking.

Indeed, breweries have entered UK competitions hosted by the likes of Camra and Siba and won strong ale categories with beers of around six or seven per cent.

There are, however, several categories of rather remarkable drinks beyond this, ales that can propel the enthusiast into the hoppy stratosphere.

The place to start, for the UK drinker at least, is probably with the Russian Imperial brews. These were named because they were in great demand at the courts of the Tsars when they ruled Russia and were made strong and dark to survive the long sea crossings to St Petersburg and Moscow in good condition and also possibly to tickle the tastebuds of a country which, to put it mildly, does not have a strong tradition of enjoying watery or light concoctions.

A couple of personal favourites in this style show how varied it is. Thornbridge’s Saint Petersburg is a deep, dark 7.7 per cent stout with incredible strong notes of coffee, chocolate, nuts and peat.

Manchester brewers Marble, on the other hand, produce an imperial called 125, which weighs in at 10 per cent but is more like a cross between a very strong porter and a wine with an explosion of lovely fruity and berry tastes.

Another homegrown contribution to the strong ales genre is the barley wine. These tend to be amber or brown in colour, about eight per cent in strength and produce a deep, mellow feeling in the drinker with a port-like warmth.

Anyone who has sampled the Orkney brewery’s drinkable Skull Splitter will know how potent this can be.

Moving across the Channel to Belgium the strong ale fan is in for an abundance of delights. They have even created a category called quadrupels for 10+ per cent dark ales, rich with coffee, nuts, chocolate and brown sugar flavours.

Prearis Quadrupel, the spicy and sea-soaked fisherman’s ale Pannepot and the dark Straffe Hendrik should all be on the radar of the dark ale fan travelling to Belgium.

For those with more capacious wallets, the US brewing scene has also embraced the idea of stronger ales, with all sorts of limited edition delights emerging. This trend has also been picked up by the likes of cult Danish phantom brewer Mikkeller.

Of course, no mention of strong ales could be complete without mention of the record-breaking Brewdog, with its Tactical Nuclear Penguin (37.5 per cent) and Sink the Bismarck! (41 per cent).

As ever, drink responsibly and in moderation!