the market: russell cronin buys ice beer

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Ice Beer comes from Canada, where some bright brewer realised that alcohol has a lower freezing point than water. The beer is chilled to the point where ice crystals form and then strained, so that soluble compounds that would otherwise develop the beer's character are removed, but the alcohol content is unaffected. The result is a clean-tasting, crisp beer with little flavour but plenty of kick.

Two of the biggest Canadian breweries, Labatt and Molson, are locked in litigation over the rights to the "ice" name. This is why the back label of a bottle of Labatt Ice asserts its trademark (TM) no less than eight times, while the Molson bottle modestly refers to an "exclusive brewing process". Both firms have approached Michael Jackson, the eminent beer expert, to act as an expert witness. He may not be of much help: "The brewing industry," he says, "is obsessed with trying to find new marketing concepts that will enable them to find that elusive youth market. So they come up with a novel marketing construct that has little or no merit and push it hard for a couple of years before everybody gets bored of it."

Ice Beer is merely the latest "technobeer": one in which brewers have worked to eliminate characteristics that market research indicates are unpopular with their customers. The average Japanese salaryman, for example, loves his beer, but doesn't like returning to the office with beer on his breath. So what do the breweries do? They invent Dry Beer, which has a very short finish and no aftertaste. Young people, on the other hand, enjoy the effect of alcohol, but don't like the taste - so the breweries come up with ice beer.

To determine whether there's any appreciable difference between ice beers and which is best, I shared a selection of bottles with a workshop full of thirsty blokes. All the beers were served cold in anonymous plastic cups and, just to make it interesting, I added one I found in my local off licence labelled Eisbrau Czech Traditional Beer, that's apparently been brewed in the royal town of Cheb since the 13th Century. For the sake of novelty, we also tried new Strongbow Ice Cider, which is quite strong at 6.5% ABV, very pale in colour and tastes sweet and innocent. In fact, according to one taster, "like Babycham, it's real leg-over tackle".

In general, the panel were not impressed, concurring with the expert view of Michael Jackson, whose comment was that he finds ice beers on the whole to have an "odd, slightly crunchy texture and notable lack of flavour". They especially hated Foster's, which was described as a "non- event," but they also weren't fond of the Czech beer, which one taster compared with "a chemical refinery by product". I should, however, point out that with an ABV of 5% and 4.5% respectively, these were the weakest beers we tasted.

Carlsberg, at 5.6% ABV, was generally agreed to have the most identifiable character, with one panellist sharp enough to declare that it tastes, "like Carlsberg". A couple of tasters preferred Molson, but some thought it too sweet. Most popular by a short neck was Labatt's, which the panel found "balanced," "quaffable," and "pleasant". Or, to quote one panellist, "the best of a bad bunch, but still nothing special".

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