For the Observer Magazine published on 7 July 1968, Cyril Ray (who we wrote about yesterday) assembled a crack team to taste beer.
The tone of the feature as a whole is a little uncertain: Mr Ray’s text argues that beer is really worthy of respect only to be undercut by an illustration (Watney’s pale in a wine basket) and sub-headline (borrowed for this post) which suggest there is something faintly ridiculous in the exercise.
Because he didn’t think it would be fair to ask professional tasters from brewery quality control departments to take part, he recruited Michael Broadbent, head of the wine department at Christie’s auctioneers, and Douglas Young, a professional tea-taster.
Michal Broadbent learned after a couple of lagers… to taste in mouthfuls rather than in his customary sips, realising that beer is meant to be quaffed, and that this is how it best shows its character. Douglas Young was soon isolating specific characteristics of each beer, and asking the brewer who looked after us, in Whitbread’s hospitable tasting-room, for the brewers’ phraseology with which to define them.
There are some other interesting general observations: beer, the wine-taster noted, is fundamentally sweet-tasting, despite its reputation for bitterness. The tea-taster was surprised by the importance of ‘nose’ in beer having apparently never taken a moment to give it a sniff before Cyril Ray asked him to. Then there’s this statement which rather contradicts the idea that beer had become uniformly bland by the end of the 1960s:
We were all, I think, pleasantly surprised to find how much difference there still is between beers of the same general type, in spite of mergers, mass production, and nation-wide marketing.
We went out of our way to acquire this article, based on a brief excerpt, in the hope that it would contain some very specific tasting notes and thus get us a bit closer to knowing what some of these beers were really like to drink nearly 50 years ago. Sadly, despite the great expertise of Mr Ray’s A-Team, the descriptions are generally rather basic — soft, sweet, bitter, refreshing, gentle, sweet, hoppy, piquant, dry, and so on. The only comparative tasting note of the sort we’re used to today is a reference to Carlsberg and Tuborg being ‘garlicky’ — a criticism of Continental hops that was a century or so old by this time.
The SPBW/CAMRA tendency that was clearly in the air makes itself known when Mr Ray writes about ‘The Draught Bitters’ [where ‘draught’ means cask-conditioned]:
I have always been a bottled-beer man myself, but I see now why many true beer-lovers prefer draught — flavour and character are not obscured by the ‘prickle’ of bottled beer and the greater coolness at which it is usually served.
He notes, too, that the three cask bitters they tasted (Bass, Charrington, Whitbread) were all quite distinctive and likely to inspire ‘loyal admirers’.
Then again, he goes on to say of the keg bitters (Watney’s Red Barrel, Whitbread Tankard, Worthington E) that:
The three of us each had his favourite among these beers… So much for the fear (which I have myself expressed) that the extensive replacement of draught beer from the wood by these ‘container’ beers, forced by gas out of metal casks, would mean the disappearance of all character and individual styles.
Red Barrel, according to the tea-taster, had ‘liveliness, heaviness and “beer taste”‘ while Worthington E, the wine-taster thought, was characterised by a ‘piquant, slightly “yeasty” refreshingness’.
The bottled pale ales (Watney’s, Whitbread, Worthington) generated some very vague observations: this one was ‘deeper’, that one had ‘greater delicacy’, and so on. The most interesting observation is that the Watney’s beer was the darkest and heaviest, suitable to accompany grilled meats, while the Worthington they found almost to resemble lager.
Finally, they tried three stouts — Guinness, Jubilee and Mackeson — making a distinction that is treated as dogma by obsessive style-categorisers today:
It was in this category that all found the biggest differences between any three beers, for the Mackeson and the Jubilee are sweet stouts, the Guinness dry.
Guinness, they thought, had a ‘warm’ smell but tasted ‘austere, yet bland’. In conclusion, Ray says:
It would ill become a wine-writer, a wine-taster, or a tea-taster to proclaim loudly that ‘Beer is Best’, but I am prepared to admit that we all found it a bit of all right with our suppers.
So, we didn’t get from this what we really wanted — modern-style tasting notes on mid-century beers — but it’s another little piece of the story, an early example of wine-is-the-new-beer-ism… and the magazine also happens to feature an essay on horror films by Kingsley Amis, so that’s a bonus.