Part Two: For Lack of a Better Name…
“Strong Ale” is probably the dumbest name for a beer style out there… and also one of the most inexact. Chances are, if someone hands you an IPA in a blind taste test, you’d pretty quickly recognize that it’s an IPA; same with a stout, a barleywine, or a hefeweizen. They have unique tastes ascribed to their style names that you’re not going to confuse with other types of beer. But if someone hands you a strong ale, your only real clue as to its identity is that it doesn’t really taste like anything else, or that it tastes exactly like another style, only much stronger than you’re used to.
In other words, a strong ale could describe just about any beer that’s stronger in alcohol than an IPA, but not quite as strong as a barleywine. That range is about 6% to 10%, although there are certainly a few other more distinct styles that play around in that range—Imperial IPAs or stouts, for instance, or Belgian dubbels or triples. Strong ale is the only style to my knowledge that is really defined more by the alcohol level than any sort of expected flavor profile.
That’s both to its benefit and its disadvantage. You never quite know what you’re picking up when you order a strong ale. Depending on the brewer and their interpretation, you can usually get wildly diverging examples. For instance, the Lagunitas Lucky 13 we have on tap right now is a completely different tasting beer than the strong ale it replaced, the Golden Valley Tannen Bomb. The Lucky 13 is far sweeter with a lot of caramel malts, some fruitiness and an almost syrupy body while the Tannen Bomb was hoppier with more citrus notes and biscuity English malts. It’s the divide between an amber and an IPA; the only thing these two strong ales have in common is their ABV (both about 8%).
Unlike some other styles of beer where you can decide after a few versions whether it’s to your liking or not, strong ales differ enough from beer to beer that every new version you try will probably taste radically unlike your previous choice. If you’ve never had a strong ale before, come on in and give the Lagunitas Lucky 13 a shot, but keep in mind that whether you love it or loathe it, you haven’t really experienced strong ales until you’ve tried them all.