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 replies on “Subtle = bland?”

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…

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.

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.

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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