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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