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Social Realist Tasting Notes


Tasting notes can sound pretentious because much of the traditional language is borrowed from the world of wine, and refers to a lifestyle with which few of us can connect.

Last Friday, in the wake of this post, we pondered aloud on Twitter about whether ‘piney’ is really a useful tasting note.

What we meant, of course, is that, although we’ve used it from time to time, it isn’t especially meaningful to us, and apparently refers to a set of aromas (and flavours?) that we find better evoked by references to vegetation (weediness) or fruit.

Many people stepped up to defend ‘piney’, but what struck a particular chord were those responses which were variations on this statement:

Now, the nearest we’ve ever been to a Californian redwood forest is watching Return of the Jedi, but everybody’s cleaned the bog, so Harpic, to us, is far more resonant.

This got us thinking about how, without really having made a point of it, we’ve been drawn towards using ‘social realist‘ beer tasting notes for some time.

The standardised language gives us ‘tinned corn’ and ‘baby sick’ to work with, of course, but we’ve also found ourselves referring at various points to:

  • Pub carpets.
  • Hairspray.
  • Tinned peaches.
  • Sweets — rhubarb and custard,  Opal Fruits (aka Starburst), Fruit Salad, Black Jacks, Parma Violets.
  • Roll-up cigarettes.
  • 2p coins.
  • Soreen.
  • Juice from the bottom of the wheelie bin.
  • Bingo markers.
  • Gripe water.

The problem is, those are just as meaningless as ‘horse blanket’ to anyone who doesn’t share our cultural or class background. (Hell, we don’t even share quite the same cultural or class background as each other — Bailey’s never had gripe water, and Boak grew up in a cigarette- and bingo-free household.)

And, however sincerely dragged from the sense memory, we suppose they might sound pretentious in their own way, too.

Perhaps it depends what you hope to achieve with your tasting notes: if it’s universal understanding, and you’re not bothered about rhetorical flourish, then get scientific; if you want to speak fluent ‘Jacksonese’ to other beer geeks, then stick to horse blankets and sherry; but if the notes are really for your own benefit, with the hope that they might occasionally resonate all the more deeply with at least one other reader, then you have to find your own language.

At any rate, we think a good rule of thumb is probably to avoid describing flavour or aroma by referring to things you’ve never tasted or smelled — “This beer’s aroma is reminiscent of the aroma of a different beer that Michael Jackson once described as piney” is a bit naff, isn’t it?

23 replies on “Social Realist Tasting Notes”

I’ve not been to California but I know what a pine forest smells like after rain — does it really matter what people write when they do their tasting notes, it’s all subjective, one person’s horse blanket is another person’s farmyard outside Tiverton. I’d hate to see a world where everything reads like a Trip Advisor review.

It might if people read tasting notes and think you need to know the exclusive code to join in.

Which is what we think some people would like, actually, as it carves out space for ‘expert guides’.

This topic always reminds me of a classic Auberon Waugh quote regarding wine writing:
“Wine writing should be camped up. The writer should never like a wine, he should be in love with it; never find a wine disappointing but identify it as a mortal enemy, an attempt to poison him; sulphuric acid should be discovered where there is the faintest hint of sharpness. Bizarre and improbable side-tastes should be proclaimed: mushrooms, rotting wood, black treacle, burned pencils, condensed milk, sewage, the smell of french railway stations or ladies’ underwear — anything to get away from the accepted list of fruit and flowers. I am not sure that it helps much but it is more amusing to read. ”

FWIW, the smell of pine seems like a real-life reference point to me, although I’m aware that as an outdoorsy type I probably spend more time stomping around wet pine forests than a lot of people do.

I’ve been to Californian forests – and they smell much like our forests. If there are lots of pine trees – you get piney aromas. And piney aromas are phenols, and phenols are what you find in disinfectants. The P in TCP is “phenol”. So there you go.

Descriptors my brother and I have found useful over the years: slightly perished bunsen burner tube & the dust found in the bottom of handbags.

If you just want to get across what it tastes like to other beer drinkers in the simplest way possible, the most obvious thing to do is to use other beers as references.

I have no idea what harpic or a horseblanket tastes like, but I do know what Punk IPA tastes like.

“slightly perished bunsen burner tube & the dust found in the bottom of handbags”

Which I read in the voice of Alan Bennett…

I think you are being a little unfair to wine writing. It’s fun to pretend wine and beer sit in opposition but, even though it’s a game only beer people play, it always seems beer loses. Wine taste descriptors tend to be more accurate in my experience. Specific berries are named. Tobacco or sandalwood named. With beer you get more secondary descriptors like pine. Having been raised in the family flower shop, I read that word when as a struggle to figure out two or three flavours, sort of an umbrella word. Nothing wrong with that but sometimes pine is eucalyptus and sometimes it is balsam gum. Sometimes it’s Christmas tree on New Years Day. I like your list. Folk will taste and describe tastes in terms of tastes previously experienced. Which means you need to taste a lot of other things. Taste raisins. Thompsons and sultanas are pretty distinct. Garbage can drippings and marker fume are excellent descriptors. As are old shed and smelly man on bus, both associates of the mythical wet horse blanket.

Well, the English language is a common inheritance of the Anglo-Saxon world and the places it influenced, so anyone writing in English and using a reasonably wide range of human experience can be counted on to be understood, or understood well enough. Jackson, despite an English background, became a star in America because his matchless prose resonated closely enough. Most people with an interest in drink know what sherry is, or toffee, or drain pipe, or black fruit, he used mostly general expressions in his writing. Of course it is true some writing will be insular. I don’t know what Harpic means. (I could check, but for the purpose of this exercise I won’t). I would guess it is equivalent to our Pinesol, a pine-scented cleanser. If it isn’t, I’ve lost a bit but still will get the gist of anyone writing in English. Lots of pines in Scotland I believe and I’d think most people have an idea what it means, it’s a sharp floral chemical-like scent.


Actually, I have heard harpic before in an alcohol context, it’s that song, “I drank the Smiddick and the Harpic”. Who did that song, you guys who always draw connections between pop music and beer would know. 🙂


Bollocks, this is a far superior drink to Harpic. The wankers don’t drink it because they can’t afford it.

(If you want to draw the implied parallel between US IPA and lighter fluid then that’s up to you…)

Delerium Tremens by Christy Moore

I would have thought that the line with Schmiddick & Harpic are more likely reference Smithwicks & Harp rather than any actual cleaning products.

Excellent, thanks! Appropriate song title. Of course you’re right, Moore was rendering in a poetic way the names of those two beers.

Speaking of blankets and beer, this may be the actual source of one use of Jackson’s blanket (he wrote that a good beer wraps around you like a sticky horse-blanket and cuddles you to sleep):

It is Charles Knight’s “London”, 1843, and the statement is made that a good Burton “‘wraps one all round like a blanket”, like Sancho’s sleep. Since it is in quotation marks, it is likely from an earlier work about Sancho (I don’t know who Sancho is). Jackson’s horse blanket was a different use, to describe brett. His former use possibly was inspired by the Charles Knight book since it contains an opening chapter dealing with beer in general and quite engaging it is.


Sorry B&B I wasn’t clear in one respect: I meant, Jackson used horse-blanket in two different senses, the one possibly related to what Knight wrote, and the other describing the brett character of Imperial Stout.

[…] on the words “hoppy” and “piney” and on the subject of more familiar, accessible ways of describing beers. This is also something beer writer Mark Dredge has confronted, in his attempt to redraw the […]

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