Carlsberg Special Brew, 8% abv, is in a sea of brands that beer writers and publicists skip over as a stone skimming water: it barely has their attention.
After all, it predates the craft era, is from an industrial brewer, and is a super-strength lager, or “tramp juice” to many. This unpleasant term denotes a beer that’s cheap in relation to the amount of alcohol delivered, and is said to encourage abuse by the abject and disfavoured in society.
Yet when you look at the beer itself, it has trendy or craft-like values, to wit
- a super-strong pilsener, so a style turned inside out
- a cult beer in its first thirty years, from 1950 to c.1980.
Special Brew thus exhibits the contradictions and relative values of craft brewing. You can see the arc within a single writer’s career, the late beer maven Michael Jackson. In his first The Pocket Beer Guide, in 1982, he gave it four stars, meaning in his system “highly distinctive”.
In his first full-length book, The World Guide to Beer (1977), he called the beer “famous”.
By the 6th edition of the Pocket Guide, in 1997, under his somewhat revised star system, the four stars were trimmed to two, meaning “above average”.
In the full-length The New World Guide to Beer, published in the intervening 1988, he offered a more nuanced if not revised view:
… some poise and balance… seem lacking in Carlsberg Special Brew, 19.2 Plato (1077; 7.1; 8.9). This extra-strong pale lager, the most potent of Carlsberg beers, has plenty of alcohol but not much character. It seems to be all brawn and no brains. Carlsberg Special Brew is made in Denmark but not marketed there. In Britain, where Carlsberg has its own brewery and produces Special locally, the product has been such a success that it has inspired many imitators, some even stronger.
Jackson seemed to look at the beer differently once the brewing revival was seriously underway and new interesting beers became available. The old school seemed less attractive in this light.
Yet, in its connoisseur phase the beer was sought after, especially in arts circles. Noted devotees included politician Winston Churchill, the writer Kingsley Amis, and rock guitarist Eric Clapton. Amis mentioned the beer more than once in Everyday Drinking: the Distilled Kingsley Amis.
Describing his preferred second drink after a period of abstinence (the first was gin and water), he wrote:
My second drink was a Carlsberg Special Brew, very cold, which I think is better than just cold. The effect was electrifying. As I drank the whole of my head was flooded with the taste and smell of beer.
For everyday tippling Amis liked to blend Special Brew with regular Carlsberg. A proto-Beer et Seq in the blending department, he was. Good man! (Actually, I got the idea from people like Amis, experts in the drinking arts).
Eric Clapton was another blender but chose to add vodka! A kind of beery Maximum R & B, or Maximum R & R, we should put it. The two-tone band Bad Manners had a hit with the song “Special Brew” in 1980, as well.
Apart from now being 8% abv instead of the original 9%, this to placate (?) health authorities, there is no reason to think the beer is much changed from 1977, when Jackson first started writing about beer. For that matter given the unusual specialty it is, I’d think the Churchillian 1950 version was similar.
What changed are the times and the context. The beer gets an average reading on current rating sites but you can’t go by that as these are affected by the evolving values and standards I’m talking about.
Had Jackson not lyricised, say, the golden Duvel in his writing, would we look at it much differently than Special Brew? I don’t think so.
The fact of being brandy-flavoured has never to my knowledge been discussed by craft beer writers, even Michael Jackson, who may simply have been unaware of it. Perhaps the brewery never told him, and it seems only in recent years the can advertises a brandy taste.
Yet the practice certainly dates from the brand’s debut in 1950. In that year, Carlsberg brewed a special version of its famous lager to honour Sir Winston Churchill’s visit to Denmark, his first since the end of WW II.
Churchill was a noted brandy drinker. The story goes the brewery imparted a touch of his favourite tipple to its beer. Making it stronger would appeal of course to one enamoured of good drink, as Churchill was known to be.
Is there brandy in Carlsberg Special Brew? If so, it’s not in the listed ingredients, “water, malted barley, glucose syrup, hops”. Maybe a synthetic or natural flavour of some kind is added, and needn’t be disclosed, that is possible.
Maybe the beer was always aged or finished in a barrel that held brandy, if so how contemporary, again.
Finally, maybe nothing is added and the brandy is really a metaphor for fruity esters created by a special fermentation to get the beer to a non-trad ABV for pilsener.
We tasted a can brought back from England recently. The drink was a strong malty lager with good hops and a fruity undertone of some kind. Very worthy.
Note re sources: the following news and blog sources were also consulted for this essay.