Drinking the abyss

Tom Pears hurls himself into the world of super-strong macro lagers. We’re still not sure why, but here’s what he learned


The first half of 2020 has caused us to question a lot of things we may have taken for granted, not least popping down to the local pub for a delicious and easily accessible craft beer. But as the months have dragged on, I’ve found myself wondering what life might be like if things never really got back to normal. What if I could no longer afford to support and purchase beers from my favourite breweries? How would I spend my time in such a barren no-craft dystopia, a world seemingly devoid of colour and imagination?

So on my next trip to the off-license – in what can only be described as a fit of morbid curiosity mixed with financial necessity – I strode past the bland but acceptably familiar 4.2% macro lagers and made a line for the strong, intimidating top-shelf cans. The kind of beers that have ‘Super’ in the title and are usually found crushed in a pile under park benches.

Ordinarily, I am a lover of bold beer styles: DIPAs, imperial stouts, Belgian tripels and quads. My incredibly naïve and overly simple hypothesis was the higher the abv, the more depth of flavour, complexity and nuance. Plus, I couldn’t help feeling that there had to be some rubies in the rubble. This was a fresh style for me to explore: the world of ‘Imperial Industrial Lager’.

Many of these lagers have an undesirable reputation of existing purely to provide a high alcoholic content at the cheapest price possible. Yet, some of the breweries behind these boozy behemoths have been in operation for centuries. I believe every beer has its context, and beauty can be found in the strangest places, and this was the positive attitude with which I hurled myself in to the void. 

Some of the breweries behind these boozy behemoths have been in operation for centuries

Aesthetically, the colour palate of these lagers is a million miles away from the array of jazzy kaleidoscopic designs on craft cans and bottles. Most cans are solemn creatures, their colour schemes foreshadowing headaches, hangovers or worst still, the colour of your toilet basin the following morning. Muddy browns, dull bronzes, drab golds, lurid greens.

I start my quest in understated fashion, picking the most horrendous looking cans I can scout. ‘Super’ was a term that kept appearing, and two particular cans caught my attention: Skøl Super and Super Kestrel, both kitted out in black and gold. I have a fair idea of what I’m getting myself into with these two, and was confident they would showcase the very worst aspects of the category. No attempt is made to hide the high abv, tasting 8% going on 45%. They are equally painful, chemical and require half a bottle of Gaviscon to exorcise from my body their acidic burn. Not a good start. 

I’m no quitter, but I do decide to take it down a notch for the sake of my digestive wellbeing. The next beer, Warka Strong, is a pleasant surprise, even though it sports the same black and gold palate, which to me is now akin to venomous animals displaying their toxicity to potential predators. At a relatively civilised 6.5% – the same as an IPA or Belgian blond – it seems doable, and in terms of character is a world away from the likes of Super Kestrel, with of roasted malt giving this lager an extra layer of flavour. There are light caramel notes, and even the weakest hint of coffee; it’s malty, but in a crisp pilsner-esque body that’s genuinely enjoyable on its own terms.

The ‘Bison Beer’ has always fascinated me, but, for reasons I can never fully explain, I have always bottled buying a can. Zubr, with its pissed off bison, looks as warm and as inviting as a nightclub bouncer on a rainy Saturday night. Accordingly, this is a beer whose trust you have to earn: the first two sips are as sharp as a potent sour, face contorting, eye wincing. However, after this initiation, it settles down and mellows in to a relatively enjoyable sipper, albeit on the sweeter side of the spectrum. The Bison’s stare is worse than its bite. 

Zubr looks as warm and as inviting as a nightclub bouncer on a rainy Saturday night

One beer that was recommended to me by a few people on Instagram (who weren’t utterly disgusted in me) was Debowe. It’s instantly recognisable on the shelf, with a brown can emulating the grain of the Oak tree that sits stoically in its centre. For a beer that is 7%, it’s remarkably smooth, with a substantial body just short of creamy. It was slightly on the sweeter side, like liquid crunchy nut cornflakes, but would do well when the sun sets at a BBQ or an outside gathering. As glorious as British summers can be, we’ve all been caught a layer or two short once the sun goes down, and Debowe’s slight little alcohol burn would at least provide a temporary beer blanket. 

An anomaly on my journey was Super Tennent’s, a representative from the UK. It stands out from the dull gold and black cans, peacocking in an electric blue outfit; an Austin Powers nestled among anonymous henchman. This is a beer I had always seen being drunk by teenagers on the continent, especially in Italy, so my hopes were high that it would be a functional, drinkable 8% lager. It smells alright, pours alright, tastes alright, aside from the lingering Heinz tomato sauce flavour, like the juice that spaghetti hoops and baked beans sit in.

I initially think I’m hallucinating when I see a 1000ml can of Faxe sitting in the top right corner of the fridge. It takes me five minutes to wiggle and squeeze it out, and when I manage it is like holding a dumbbell or an industrial vat of peas. This thing is huge; a whole litre of beer for three quid is a no-brainer. Does it taste ok? Does it taste of anything? Categorically not; it’s like drinking condensed damp cardboard mixed with meths. But for its price and its size, this would be the beer I’d hoard if 2020 goes the distance and throws an actual zombie apocalypse at us.

Finally, it was down to Karpackie. The beer that had haunted the back of my fridge and my dreams for weeks, demonic in its all-black can. The only attention that it pays to any form of branding is the ‘strong’ written in blood red on the front, which serves as both a warning and a tasting note. Foolishly, I’ve read online reviews, even watched a YouTube video, neither did much to temper my nerves. At 9%, it’s only 1% higher in abv that Super Tennant’s, yet it’s infinitely bleaker. A liquid headache, it impressively manages to smell and taste like glue, nail polish remover and petrol all at the same time. This was the worst experience – an absolute abomination of a beer.

Unsurprisingly, not every beer was a hit, but in searching for flavours (sometimes any flavour) these lagers provided me genuine solace and respite from the world outside. 

In order to appreciate the best beer, you’ve got to at least sample (endure) the worst

I firmly subscribe to the notion that in order to appreciate the best beer, you’ve got to at least sample (endure) the worst. We are spoiled by breweries today, who never cease bringing out new beers. I would have loved to have been able to drink the finest Bavarian Helles, the hypiest IPAs or my body weight in lambic, but that just wasn’t possible. That first sip of pale ale that passed my lips though tasted incredible, my senses overwhelmed by citrus aromas and a smorgasbord of flavours, all vying for my attention. It was that youthful pick ‘n’ mix feeling before the cinema time all over again. 

Of course, I am not the only one who has adapted in this time. Craft breweries up and down the country are offering great deals and pubs are turning in to makeshift growler stations and offering takeaway pints. So my little lockdown experiment may seem like unnecessary self-flagellation, but if it taught me anything it is that we should shout about our favourites. I have tasted the abyss, it is a joyless, desolate place, so please drink, celebrate and support your favourite breweries.

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