Accessibility, or Why People Don’t Like Beer

Detail from old beer label: BITTER ALE.

A bit of discussion broke out in the comments on Monday’s post about what is or is not ‘accessible’ beer.

When we were first getting into beer as young twenty-somethings it was via Greene King IPA, Leffe, Erdinger and Hoegaarden, all of which are considered bland by modern standards. For us, they were just stimulating enough without being scary. (We still like Hoegaarden, the others less so.) In our experience, then, there is definitely something in the idea of so-called gateway beers.

But we also know people who didn’t show any interest in beer until they’d tried a really hoppy IPA. In their own way, a different way, they are gateway beers too: as well as being extravagant and flowery, they are often also on the sweet side, whatever the raw IBU data might suggest. Balanced, if you like, only with lots on both sides of the scale. If your palate is used to cocktails, spirits, wine, cider, coffee or other strongly-flavoured drinks, they don’t necessarily seem overly intense or alcoholic, while at the same time challenging ideas of what beer has to be.

(Thinner session-strength beers with lots of hops, on the other hand, can be a challenge, with little body or sweetness to protect the tastebuds from sheer sap-sucking dryness — it took us a while to get used to pale’n’hoppy, which is now pretty much our favourite thing in the world.)

When people tell you they don’t like beer, what reasons do they give? We tend to hear:

  1. It’s too bitter!’ Even of quite sweet beers, so we’re not always sure it’s actually bitterness they mean. ‘Brownness’, maybe? Or perhaps just a general nasty staleness.
  2. ‘It’s too much — I get bloated and sleepy.’ A matter of volume. People still don’t feel comfortable ordering halves and, when they do, they’re often poorly presented. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, people also seem to find fizzier beers less soporific, and more refreshing.
  3. ‘I’m just not a beer person’, or variations thereon. If you’re trying to portray a glamorous riviera lifestyle on Instagram or Facebook, beer doesn’t seem to quite cut it.

So accessible beer, for many people, might be relatively low in (perceived) bitterness, possibly served in smaller measures, and attractively presented (glassware or packaging). And for others who recoil at ‘fanciness’ it might mean a pint of Doom Bar, which we find utterly boring, but which it turns out has a lot of very sincere, even evangelistic fans.

Which explains a lot about supermarkets and multi-nationals are taking these days — not, perhaps, a race to the bottom but a race for the accessible end of the market.

Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?

‘Imagine if German beer geeks had dominated the discourse since the 1990s and decided that Burton Pale Ale was a type of Gose.’

That’s a thought-provoking suggestion from Robbie Pickering, AKA @robsterowski. Here are the thoughts it provoked, in a roundabout way.

There is a comparative lack of straightforward-but-better takes on mainstream German styles such as Pilsner even in the midst of the current excitement around brewing. The trend post 2005, or thereabouts, has been for British brewers to ape the American obsession with high ABV, highly aromatic IPAs and the like.

We know how we got here – it’s what Brew Britannia is all about, summarised in this 2012 blog post that kicked that project off – but what might have happened differently in the past for us to be somewhere else today?

Continue reading “Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?”

BOOKS: The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

When a linguist writes about global food culture it feels like being given a glimpse into the complex machinery of the human race.

Dan Jurafsky is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University whose speciality is the application of heavyweight computing power to vast bodies of writing such as restaurant menus or online reviews. In The Language of Food (Norton, 2014, Amazon UK | Amazon US) he explores the etymology of food-related words — ketchup, Turkey, ceviche — and, in so doing, the shared origins of apparently divergent foodstuffs. Ketchup, for example, he traces back to dirt ditches full of fermenting fish in South East Asia, making it a cousin of Chinese soy sauce and Indonesian arrak, which itself begat rum.

The cover of The Language of Food.The book isn’t primarily about beer but there are frequent mentions of it and linguistically related varieties of booze:

[The] Hebrew word sheker had a continued life as the meaning ‘fortified beer’ generalized to refer to any kind of strong drink. Saint Jerome in his fourth-century Latin Bible translation, the Vulgate, borrowed it into Latin as sicera, which he defined as beer, mead, palm wine, or fruit cider. In the early Middle Ages… the word sicera, now pronounced sidre, became the name of the fermented apple juice that became popular in France, especially in Normandy and Brittany. After 1066 the Normans brought the drink and the new English word cider to Britain.

There is also an entire chapter that draws heavily on research by him and his colleagues into reviews on RateBeer and Beer Advocate. It turns out that people have much richer vocabularies when it comes to slagging things off than for being positive about them:

[Reviewers] tended to describe the way they were ‘bad’ by using different negative words for different senses, distinguishing whether the beer smelled or tasted bad (corny, skunky, metallic, stale, chemical), looked bad (piss, yellow, disgusting, colorless, skanky), or felt bad in the mouth (thin, flat, fizzy, overcarbonated). By contrast, when people liked a beer, they used the same few vague positive words we saw at the beginning of the chapter—amazing, perfect, wonderful, fantastic, awesome, incredible, great— regardless of whether they were rating taste, smell, feel, or look.

Which perhaps explains why bad reviews are more fun to read and write than good ones.

That word ‘awesome’ also gets a bit of personal attention: I now know that the process of taking a word originally intended to describe something HUGE and IMPORTANT (the awesome power of the ocean) and applying it to something small and trivial (this lager is awesome!) is called ‘semantic bleaching’. Worth knowing if you want your fings-ain’t-wot-they-used-to-be grumbling to sound more intelligent.

And there are many more passages that, even if they don’t refer to beer, clearly apply to it. When he mentions, in relation to the habit of eating meat with fruit, that seasonal food is often a reminder of what was everyday behaviour hundreds of years ago, old ales and winter warmers come to mind. In a passage on the ‘grammar of food’ he argues that the reason people like putting bacon in ice cream these days is ‘not because this is necessarily the most delicious way to serve bacon but, at least in part, because it breaks the rules, it’s fun, it’s rebellious’ —  does that also apply to the appeal of sour, hazy beer in today’s craft beer culture? (Yes.)

Jurafsky’s concluding arguments certainly apply to beer — think India Pale Ale in its many guises, or Imperial stout, or Gose:

All innovation happens at interstices. Great food is no exception, created at the intersection of cultures as each one modifies and enhances what is borrowed from its neighbors.

The foods we eat and drinks we drink — our cultures — are the same, only different. That’s a comforting message in 2016, isn’t it?

If all that sounds a bit heavy, the book is also a goldmine of quotable not-so-trivial did-you-know trivia — I was saying, ‘Huh, fancy that!’ every other paragraph, in a way anyone who follows @HaggardHawks or @Susie_Dent on Twitter will recognise. I don’t think it will be for everyone: despite Jurafsky’s best efforts to find an over-arching narrative, and to personalise the text with mentions of his grandmothers and in-laws, it is really an information dump with periodic conclusions. But that very much works for me.

Smoke Signals: We’re Not Stuck in the Mud, Honest!

Moor brewery wall sign: 'No fish guts.'

In recent weeks the Campaign for Real Ale has been sending coded signals: it isn’t hidebound or dogmatic, it can change, it is hip to where it’s at, Daddy-O.

First there was this press release referencing an article in the latest edition of the Good Beer Guide:

A growing number of brewers are looking at alternatives to isinglass as a clearing or ‘fining’ agent in their beers, the 2017 Good Beer Guide (GBG), published by the Campaign for Real Ale, CAMRA, reports. Isinglass is made from the swim bladders of fish – and as more and more drinkers today are vegetarians and vegans, brewers are looking at alternative ways to serve crystal clear pints.

The press release, and the article to which it refers, aren’t calling for more unfined beer (though the former does quote Roger Protz seeming to do so) but that’s certainly how the BBC and other outlets reported it. (Later corrected.) The reason, we suspect, that CAMRA’s communications staff got so especially annoyed at this misrepresentation is because they laboured hard behind the scenes to get a message that all the key players were happy with. This is the kind of thing politicians deal with all the time: ‘I think it’s time to consider whether oranges might not deserve a place in the fruit bowl alongside apples, in certain circumstances,’ says the Minister; MINISTER SLAMS OUR GREAT BRITISH APPLE reads the headline. Because carefully composed, nuanced messages are rarely news.

The real point was intended to be, we think, that (a) CAMRA knows about this stuff on the outer fringes of ‘craft beer’; (b) it acknowledges that good beer can be made this made way; and (c) it is watching with keen interest and an open attitude.

On a similar note was last week’s announcement that, for the first time, a canned beer has been certified as ‘real ale’ by the Campaign’s technical committee. At the most basic level this is a statement of fact — the TC counted yeast cells in the packaged product and gave it the thumbs up — but of course it’s much more than that. In 2016, cans are a ‘craft’ thing, and certainly seem to dominate the crafty end of our Twitter feed, and this is about CAMRA finding a way to connect with that constituency. We don’t think it’s too much to describe it as a gesture of friendship. (But craft cynics might see it as co-opting or Dad dancing, while real ale hard-liners will see pandering.)

Here’s something we said in our big Brew Britannia follow-up blog post in 2015, in relation to the decision that beer in key-keg could be considered real ale under certain circumstances:

[That’s] how we expect CAMRA to play this in the years to come – slow change without big announcements – merely the occasional sounding of a dog whistle through selected channels. That way, they will hope to avoid scaring away conservative members many of whom (not all) also happen to be older and therefore, for various reasons, make up the bulk of the active membership.

That still holds true but perhaps the whistles are getting more frequent and more audible?


We use the word ‘character’ a lot and, before craft beer, Michael Jackson often wrote about ‘beers of character’. It conveys something but… what?

This Tweet got us thinking because we instinctively read into ‘character’ in this context an implication that the more characterful beer might also have been more challenging, or less universally appealing. That is, probably from the point of view of many people, worse.

We usually use ‘characterful’ to acknowledge that we think a beer is distinctive (that’s another one) but that we don’t necessarily like it, or dare to assume that others will either. (‘It’s certainly different, I’ll give it that.’)

As we talked it over, though, we realised the utter vagueness of the word. We’d always thought it was a more precise and useful word than ‘good’ — that someone could acknowledge a beer they dislike as having character — but now we’re not so sure. Can’t one drinker’s characterful be another’s bland, or another’s gimmicky crap?

Person A and Person B compared: each thinks the others characterful beer is bland or over-the-top respectively.

A beer can be weak and mild but still highly distinctive, e.g. (again) Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, but to people who aren’t tuned into these things, it’ll just taste like Doom Bar. Equally, someone not focused on the wackier end of craft beer might find those beers homogeneous — a general mess of sour, boozy, hazy, oily grapefruit juice. In other words, characterful is mobile:

A quadrant chart: weak/mild vs. strong intense on one axis; simple/complex on the other.

Those two circles mark where our imaginary Person A and Person B might locate ‘characterful’ — they’re quite close to each other really, aren’t they?

We suppose Person A might learn to love characterful bitters if they tried, and Person A could develop a taste for barrel-aged imperial stouts, but neither is going to find character in basic, well-mannered beers where it just doesn’t exist.

So maybe ‘characterful’ does still work, and does describe a quality of the beer regardless of the drinker’s palate?