The Prime Minister today introduces plans for minimum pricing on alcohol. In this week's Spectator, Leo McKinstry mounts a defence of Special Brew, the tipple of Kingsley Amis and Churchill.
I have a confession to make: I am writing this article under the influence. As I tap away at my laptop, a can of lovely Carlsberg Special Brew sits on the table beside me, acting on my brain as oil acts on a car engine: lubricating the moving parts. Ever since I found that it could help to speed up my word output, strong Danish beer has been essential to my writing career, so it’s a great shock to discover that the government has Special Brew in its sights.
Carlsberg Special is perhaps the most notorious of the super-strength lagers on sale in Britain today. It has a glorious alcohol by volume measurement of 9 per cent, and its intensity far exceeds the average lagers on the market, which rarely go above 5 per cent. This why it’s so appealing to tipplers on a tight string; and why it’s known as ‘tramp juice.’
Precisely because of the wayward nature of some of Special Brew’s most ardent clientele, the public health lobby has made the beer a prime target for its sanctimonious activities. The coalition already plans to introduce minimum alcohol pricing to curb sales, but some killjoys now want to go further. One charity, Thames Reach, has called for an outright ban on the sales of all beers above 6 per cent — a form of prohibition voluntarily enacted by many shops across Westminster for some time now. ‘Super-strength alcohol is aimed at alcoholics, drug users and some of the most vulnerable and needy members of society,’ said Audrey Lewis, a Westminster city councillor, in justifying the initiative.
Well, not all Special Brew devotees are gentlemen of the road. Some of us lead vaguely respectable lives, own our own homes and bathe regularly. And unlike the hectoring prohibitionists, we believe that people should take responsibility for their own actions.
Intrigued rather than deterred by Special Brew’s negative image, I began drinking it about two decades ago and I relish it partly because of its unique, rich taste, which, like so many of the best flavours, manages to be simultaneously sweet and bitter. Nor can I deny that I like the warm glow and buzz that it gives me.
After becoming used to Special Brew, almost every other beer seems insipid. That fine connoisseur and literary genius Kingsley Amis was also a fan of Special Brew and used to mix it, half and half, with ordinary Carlsberg in a large tankard. No other drink, he wrote, has the same ability ‘to create goodwill’, though his son Martin was not so keen, priggishly calling it ‘vandal-strength lager’.
Such is my love of Special Brew that I operate a reverse version of the usual booze cruise. Whenever my wife and I travel for a long break to France, I load the boot of the car with tins from the local off-licence. Perhaps I am the only traveller who brings alcohol from England to the continent. But my devotion does have its drawbacks: the remorseless expansion of my waistline through Special Brew’s brutal calorie count. And I once suffered a professional disaster when, at the end of a long writing day, I knocked over a can, spilling the contents over the keyboard. The computer expired shortly afterwards.
In 1980, a rebellious ska band called Bad Manners had a huge hit with a single entitled ‘Special Brew’, which stayed for 13 weeks in the charts: ‘I don’t care, when they stare at the way I’m always with you. We’re a pair, it’s not fair when they say we’re a special brew,’ sang the lead singer, Buster Bloodvessel. This lyrical attack didn’t do much for Special Brew’s already shaky reputation, but what Buster clearly didn’t know was that Special Brew has the most august of origins.
The drink was created by the Carlsberg Brewery in 1950 to celebrate the visit of Winston Churchill to Copenhagen, following the Danish tradition of producing a new beer for special national occasions. Knowing of the great man’s fondness for cognac, the Carlsberg brewers managed to infuse the lager with some of that brandy flavour, hence the special taste. When he returned to Britain, Carlsberg sent two crates of Special Brew to his London address. Always a man of judgment and taste, Churchill seems to have liked the drink, which he called ‘Commemoration Lager’ in a letter of thanks to the brewery. By the time Winston was fighting his last parliamentary election in 1959, production of Carlsberg Special was under way in Britain at the firm’s Northampton plant. If Special Brew was good enough for Winston Churchill, it is certainly good enough for the rest of us.