‘Beer Gets the Connoisseur Treatment’, 1968

Detail from the two-page spread.

For the Observer Magazine published on 7 July 1968, Cyril Ray (who we wrote about yesterday) assembled a crack team to taste beer.

Cover of The Observer Magazine, 7 July, 1968.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.

8 thoughts on “‘Beer Gets the Connoisseur Treatment’, 1968”

  1. I would assume (from working in the industry) that the photo and headline were concocted by the art department and the subs desk respectively, not by Cyril Ray, so at least some of the uncertainty may be a result of snobs in those areas finding the subject hard to take seriously.

    As a journalist you’re always at the mercy of ham-fisted editing and subbing. In the worst cases it can pretty much invert your meaning, yet there’s your name at the top so readers think it’s all your fault. Thankfully it is rarely quite that bad, although with many publications slashing or even eliminating their subs desks, the problem of misleading or contradictory subheads is definitely still a live one.

  2. Cyril Ray’s description of his visit to Courage’s Russian Imperial Stout cellars which Ron reproduced here is among the best beer writing I’ve ever read.

  3. Not to be pointy fingery, but why do you think modern tasting notes, with all their warts, would do any better a job of describing experience and why did you expect them before that approach came into existence?

    1. It would be interesting to know if a hoppy beer in 1968 smelled ‘orangey’, for example. I guess we thought that kind of tasting note might have been around in wine writing before it arrived in beer. When did wine writers start doing that ‘gooseberries in a bowl of old socks’ type thing? It was certainly a standard joke by the 1980s.

      1. True but I wonder how might it tastes orangey because we are accustomed to framing the experience in that way. I recall Goldings, for example, being described as a Christmas candy cane before a certain point. Before a lexicon for experience is created it is not missed. No one before the ascendency of “craft” as a descriptor missed its existence. I recall in the mid-1990s discussing the options for structuring of taste perception on a wine group and how 11 flavour elements can be perceived in a variety of groupings leading to quite separate taste profiles for the drinker. Also, it might be that the brewing technique of the time didn’t generate orange-ness as it was not a note anticipated or valued in the drinking public.

  4. Good work to find this. ray’s lyrical take on Russian Stout, e.g., “smells like a burgundy” and tastes like “liquid silk”, is a bit more descriptive, and we know what this means because some Imperial Stout (unflavoured, un-aged in American oak) tastes like that today.

    Jackson’s earliest descriptions, in his 70’s books, are somewhat similar to the Ray’s team’s approach; only later did he drill down in the manner of the wine writers.

    Garlicy refers I believe to pale lager yeast fermentation characteristics, notably dimethyl sulphide and sometimes hydrogen sulphide: a lot of lager still tastes like that today. (Some doesn’t, e.g., Urquell).

    Beer is indeed sweet, even well-attenuated beer, by comparison to most wine.

    I think Ray made an error by not including people experienced at tasting beer. He could have enlisted a couple of retired brewers or lab people.

    Gary

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