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The Stale Language of Beer

Two glasses of beer.

This guest post on Sophie Atherton’s blog is interesting for several reasons. First, because Ms. Woolgar, not being a fully-fledged beer geek, seems to have been able to react honestly to the beers she tasted without the fog of hype clouding her vision. Secondly, because of some of the language she uses to describe flavour and aroma:

  • a hint of Maltesers
  • a fresh, zesty lemon mousse aroma
  • a slight toasted cumin flavour
  • mustard and cress
  • blue cheese.

That refreshingly original vocabulary, apparently based on gut feeling, is a pleasure to read.

A lot of people, us included, write about beer using words and terms largely informed by Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson, Roger Protz, and others in that lineage. People will describe ‘horse blanket’ when they really mean ‘that thing you get in that other beer that Michael Jackson said had a horse blanket character’. Who, apart from Adrian Tierney-Jones, has actually smelled a horse blanket? Seriously?

The same goes for ‘styles’. The established style framework has its uses, we think, but Alan is right to ask why there aren’t any/many alternatives. New ways of cutting the deck can be revealing, even if they ultimately fail. For example, we’ve been enjoying and pondering upon Tandleman’s distinction between beers for ‘supping’ and those for ‘sipping’. An entire classification system could be worked up from that — one that reflects the question of ‘sessionability’ while recognising that carbonation, bitterness, balance, and intensity of flavour are arguably as important as alcoholic strength.

7 replies on “The Stale Language of Beer”

the only word you need is “neckable” as grog is either neckable or it isn’t. If you want to be flowery you might want to mention whether it is “headbanging stuff” or “piss weak”

The whole idea of the referential vocabulary is very new though, giving it a different spin may be refreshing in moving away from regulated terms such as those on Meilgaards flavour wheel but the force for most of the tasting industry is towards standardisation not eloquence. If you want eloquence sn’t an evocative rather than referential approach a way to go. Or is that straying into doggeral poetry and the silliness of Food and Drink programme “this beer reminds me of a sumemrs day”
You might find this interesting on that history though:

Thanks for the link — useful! We’ve recently been researching the application of ‘wine tasting’ language to beer which, as far as we can tell, didn’t really begin until c.1980. Before then, we’ve got a few uses of ‘nutty’, one of ‘blackcurrant’ (to describe hop character), but not much else.

i’ve smelt horse blanket, as will anyone who has been to a stables/ ridden a horse at the seaside/ visited a farm

but i don’t like using the term, farmyard is probably better

The world is a very different place from what it was when Jackson began writing about beer and I don’t think there can be much/any doubt that if he was starting out today the language he’d use would be very different from that for which he came to be known and respected and loved.

People shouldn’t try and imitate Jackson’s style. They should write in a voice that is natural to them – that’s what he did.

When writing about beer I try to embrace Allen Ginsberg’s approach to poetry: first thought, best thought.

Drinking beer is fun. The language used when talking and writing about beer should convey that sense of fun and enjoyment.

Know what you mean, if I read lychee as a descriptor again I may vomit. On the other hand I can’t be totally uncritical of my own hatred of cliche. The common currency of broad, ambiguous terms like bready/biscuity/floral is surely part of the gradual mainstreaming of beer tasting (as opposed to just drinking) that you have written about before. Irritating to me for their imprecision but more useful than “Is it a lager or an ale?” “Does it taste strong?” etc.
Even more abstract terms like ‘horse blanket’ are now used as a proxy for the smell of Brett used in secondary fermentation and/or for a long maturation. Broad ignorance of the exact nature of a petard doesn’t prevent people from using the adage in a basically correct and widely understood way.
Personal, poetic or lateral descriptors can definitely be refreshing and indicative of a new perspective. They *can* also smack of geek fortress syndrome: “Quick! People are invading our subculture, haul up the drawbridge! Obfuscate!”

I think it is all from Hugh Johnson, the use of metaphor and simile to describe flavour in drink in a systematic way. I believe Jackson credited him with part at least of his tasting approach to beer. Of course, adjectives to describe wine long-predated Johnson but his approach to tasting still is decidedly modern to this day. However, Michael too was simply giving voice to something the people thought of too. In The World Guide To Beer, he refers to a poll among the British public who were asked to describe flavours in beers and words came back such as “cabbagey” and “toffee-like”. I think “sickly” was in there too! (We’ve all had too many of those, probably poorly kept real beer). It is common sense to use metaphor relating to other foods to describe beer taste simply because both are eaten or drunk.

Once, a woman in tasting at a friend’s home with no particular experience of beer called an IPA “angular” which I thought was very interesting. It is a useful term potentially but not as descriptive as the Jacksonian vocabulary IMO.


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