Subtle = bland?

What’s the dif­fer­ence between a beer that’s sub­tle and one that’s bland?

There are quite a few terms used in beer writ­ing which are impre­cise.

The one that I ago­nise over most is “sub­tle”. There are some beers which, to me, have lit­tle or no flavour – cer­tain­ly not a flavour worth trum­pet­ing. They’re bland.

And yet I read arti­cles by well-known beer writ­ers wax­ing poet­i­cal about the sub­tle bril­liance of the very same brews. Some­times, the fine flavours are appar­ent­ly so sub­tle that they only emerge when accom­pa­nied by, say, a par­tic­u­lar type of bread, or at a cer­tain tem­per­a­ture.

So, I think Com­mer­cial Lager X is bland; Big Shot Beer Writer thinks it “beguiles with a clean, malty palate, and a sub­tle hint of spicy hop in the after­taste”. Huh?

Is my palate at fault? Per­haps. You might recall that it took a con­cen­trat­ed effort for us to dis­cern what was, to us, a sub­tle dis­tinc­tion between Koelsch and bog stan­dard lager.

Anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty – could it be that these writ­ers feel oblig­ed to be nice about cer­tain beers for political/commercial rea­sons? Pos­si­bly.

Most often, though, it’s prob­a­bly just that most of us know when we like or dis­like a par­tic­u­lar beer and set about using words to jus­ti­fy our judge­ment.

So, what’s the dif­fer­ence between a beer with low-car­bon­a­tion, and a beer that’s flat? A beer that’s sub­tle and one that’s bland? Or one with “crisp hop bit­ter­ness” and one that “is dry and astrin­gent”?

Maybe noth­ing except that the crit­ic likes the first beer, but does­n’t like the sec­ond.

5 thoughts on “Subtle = bland?”

  1. You learn a lot about dif­fer­ent shades of bland­ness drink­ing beer in Span­ish cafes… I think I may have detect­ed some flavour in an Estrel­la Dam last night…

  2. I think it depends on the beer. For a wit, I want the corian­der to be sub­tle. For a vanil­la cream ale, I want the vanil­la to be sub­tle. I use word like sub­tle, faint and soft as a pos­i­tive in these sit­u­a­tions. How­ev­er, I don’t want my RIS to be sub­tle, soft, faint or restrained. Bland, to me, is when the fla­vors aren’t present: for the wit, we’ll want that corian­der, some cit­rus, some wheat and a yeast-derived tang. I’ve also had beers, a brown ale and a hefeweizen recent­ly, that seemed part bland and part mud­dy. The “com­plex” grain­bill left all the fla­vors mud­dled togeth­er, and the beer just seemed lame. Mud­dy was my word.

  3. Some­times a sub­tle beer can appear bland because one too read­i­ly com­pares it to beers that excite the palate a lit­tle more. If you try a well brewed beer at the right time and place, you can appre­ci­ate sub­tle flavours. If you crack one open in front of the tel­ly right after you’ve downed one of your favourites, you won’t be a posi­tion to appre­ci­ate it.

    Should you slag some­thing off if you’ve been sent a load of free sam­ples, then find you don’t like the beer? Per­son­al­ly I just don’t write about the beer at all in that sit­u­a­tion – I don’t nor­mal­ly see the need to trash a beer some­one else might enjoy just because it does­n’t suit my taste. Oth­ers choose to be a lit­tle cre­ative with lan­guage – but it’s usu­al­ly easy enough to read between the lines.

  4. It’s a good ques­tion. Being a fan of big-flavoured beers I would nor­mal­ly regard sub­tle­ness and bland­ness as the same thing, except when the sub­tle flavour is part of a big­ger com­plex of flavours. Also, beers which have oth­er things going for them, like aro­ma or mouth­feel, would­n’t be described as bland by me if the flavour was faint.

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