What Is ‘Drinkability’?

Detail from c.1900 postcard: moustachioed man chugging beer.

That’s a thought-pro­vok­ing and fun­ny response to (we assume) this blog post by John Keel­ing of Fuller’s for Craft Beer Lon­don, in which he says:

[Beer] from kegs, cans and bot­tles has got a lot bet­ter over the last few years, they just don’t have that ulti­mate drink­a­bil­i­ty. That is cask ale’s trump card: if you’re hav­ing a few, there’s no doubt that cask ale is your best option. It’s bet­ter for flavour; a 3½ per­cent ale won’t work on keg but it can be superb on cask. For an occa­sion when you’re going to have four or five pints, cask is best.

Drink­a­bil­i­ty’ is one of those words that some peo­ple dis­like, along with ‘refresh­ing’, ‘smooth’ and ‘creamy’, for rea­sons summed up in a post by Amer­i­can writer Bryan Roth last year:

Every beer, by virtue of being liq­uid, is smooth. But to declare a beer’s sen­so­ry char­ac­ter­is­tics sim­ply as ‘smooth’ is no bet­ter than rely­ing on its dis­grace­ful cousin, ‘drink­a­bil­i­ty,’ which is essen­tial­ly describ­ing a beer as drink­able because it doesn’t kill you when you con­sume it… ‘Smooth’ is noth­ing more than word vom­it, digest­ed in the chasms of the brain, spewed from our mouths and flushed down our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness, only to reap­pear all around us, as if some form of con­ta­gious dis­ease so eas­i­ly passed from one per­son to the next.

But in the con­text John Keel­ing has used the word it seems to be a form of under­state­ment along the lines of ‘very watch­able’ to describe a pop­u­lar film, or ‘dance­able’ of a song to which it is hard to resist mov­ing along. It means that it a beer is not mere­ly pos­si­ble to chug down while sup­press­ing the gag reflex but that is easy to drink, or even dif­fi­cult to stop drink­ing, even if there might not be much to say about it.

Beer is a grand drink.

The oppo­site of drink­able might be ‘hard work’ or ‘chal­leng­ing’, which can be applied to many tru­ly great, inter­est­ing, com­plex beers that, nonethe­less, we would not want to drink more than once a year, or in mea­sures of greater than 250ml.

Whether cask ale is the most ‘drink­able’ type of beer is debat­able – we’ve nev­er had any trou­ble putting away cold, high­ly car­bon­at­ed lager, for exam­ple.

At any rate, hav­ing giv­en due pon­der­ing time to the chal­lenge posed by Paul in his Tweet, we reck­on drink­a­bil­i­ty is a per­fect­ly decent, use­ful word.

21 thoughts on “What Is ‘Drinkability’?”

  1. Is this the same idiot who said “malty” wasn’t a use­ful word? I don’t think so, but can’t remem­ber.

    John Keel­ing means, I believe, that cask ale is more drink­able because it has less dis­solved CO2. What it boils down to is that you spend more time drink­ing, and less time burp­ing.

    1. When we inter­viewed CAMRA founder Michael Hard­man back in 2012 he brought up his hatred of burp­ing with­in min­utes of the con­ver­sa­tion begin­ning – one of the main rea­sons he’d always been drawn to what he lat­er learned was cask-con­di­tioned beer.

      Me, I quite like a good burp, and it doesn’t take all that much time out of the day…

  2. It’s nev­er fun work­ing with lan­guage ama­teurs. But isn’t the oppo­site of drink­able sim­ply “undrink­able”? “Chal­leng­ing” is a point on the con­tin­u­um per­haps near­er the undrink­able pole. Then it’s also sub­jec­tive as all things are in taste. Gueuze is undrink­able for some while guz­zl­ble for oth­ers. Drink­able is a very use­ful word in its con­text.

    1. We reck­on that’s the oppo­site of the lit­er­al def­i­n­i­tion of drink­able (i.e. pos­si­ble to drink) but chal­leng­ing is the oppo­site of this slight­ly more spe­cif­ic usage.

      1. I don’t dis­agree entire­ly but think you may be lean­ing dan­ger­ous­ly near the gap­ing hole that leads to the rats’ war­ren of prig­gery if there is a pos­si­bil­i­ty of a spe­cif­ic usage only relat­ed beer. Isnt it just anoth­er way of say­ing mor­eish? Whether is a beer or a per­fect slab of had­dock from the chip shop or a banana cream pie it’s mor­eish. Plus, it’s real­ly describ­ing the human reac­tion to the thing being con­sumed, not a char­ac­ter­is­tic of the thing in itself.

  3. Could some­one take Aver­age Cit­i­zen out­side for some fresh air? He’s get­ting a bit loud and I’m wor­ried he might take a swing at some­body.

  4. What Keel­ing means by ‘drink­able’ is what oth­er peo­ple have called ‘ses­sion­able’ – a ‘drink­able’ beer is one that’s a good choice for a ses­sion of three or four pints. And I say that with­out a “per­haps” or an “it seems to me”, because he says that’s what he means by it in the same para­graph. Storm, teacup.

    What makes for a ‘drink­able’ (or ‘ses­sion­able’) beer is more inter­est­ing. I think it’s a com­bi­na­tion of a cer­tain thin­ness, so that it goes down eas­i­ly and you don’t feel like you’re drink­ing med­i­cine; a flavour that devel­ops as you get down the glass, so that you like it more the more you drink of it; and a dry­ing bit­ter­ness on the fin­ish, so that when your glass is emp­ty you almost imme­di­ate­ly start to feel like anoth­er. A rel­a­tive­ly low a.b.v. isn’t an essen­tial part of the def­i­n­i­tion but is advis­able, for obvi­ous rea­sons (says man who had 4.5 pints last night, includ­ing 2.5 of the *very* drink­able Tick­ety­brew Blonde, and only realised this morn­ing that the said Blonde is 5.6%).

    1. Epit­o­mised by the Track Ses­sion IPA I had in the Pic­cadil­ly Tap ear­li­er this evening. It was 4.6% and I only had one but hav­ing sev­er­al more would have been oh so easy.

      1. You’ve bro­ken one of our host Mr Boakanbailey’s Rules and Reg­u­la­tions of beer blog­ging my link­ing to your blog in a com­ment, I’m afraid. Big black mark for you, sir.

        As I said on twit­ter, I find this over analy­sis of drink­ing ridicu­lous. I do how­ev­er enjoy John Clarke’s praise for the Track Ses­sion IPA at the Pic­cadil­ly today as I may have had a hand in both keep­ing the beer and indeed putting it in his hand.

        Prost.

      2. You didn’t tell us you’d start­ed a blog – great news!

        With all the mild we’ve been drink­ing late­ly we’re real­ly try­ing to get our heads round where mellow/straightforward/honest cross­es over into bland/boring. It’s a fine line.

        We’ve only been to Dues­sel­dorf once, loved it, but haven’t found the time/money to go back. One day.

  5. There are cur­rent­ly two main camps in the newest batch of beer “experts”/ enthu­si­asts who drink beer vic­ar­i­ous­ly for their audi­ence and report their find­ings:

    1. Over­ly detailed ver­bose drib­bling, draw­ing sen­so­ry par­al­lels with any­thing from bis­cuits ingest­ed as a youth, to their first sex­u­al encounter with an ani­mal.

    2. Gener­ic “lin­er note” read­ing as-per style/ what some­one else said: “Cit­rus, Man­go, Orange…Citrus.…Piney.…Mango…Citrus”.

    The first fre­quent­ly falls flat because the writer/ pre­sen­ter oft doesn’t have a clue about jour­nal­ism, writ­ing, flavour, brew­ing or beer. The sec­ond is just broad­cast­ing one­self to be a slack-jawed sim­ple­ton to the world reg­u­lar­ly through the medi­um of the inter­net.

    The word “Drink­a­bil­i­ty” says a lot more than most of this garbage, bilge and dri­v­el when uttered from a author­i­ta­tive source (see Keel­ing, John). For the record, I also love the descrip­tor “a fine beer”.

  6. I can agree that “drink­able” wants con­text. Most of us tend to use it not as “able to be drunk” but “able to be drunk in rather dan­ger­ous­ly large quan­ti­ties if you are not care­ful.” In that sense most of the nov­el­ty beers we see today are not espe­cial­ly drink­able, even if they’re very taste-able. I sus­pect “easy to drink” is more eas­i­ly under­stood.

    1. I think ‘drink­able’ is more pos­i­tive than ‘easy to drink’ or ‘easy drink­ing’. ‘Easy to drink’ says you can neck it. ‘Drink­able’ says you can neck it and enjoy the taste while you’re doing it.

  7. To me, drink­able is very sim­ple. It means, i) a beer with a great taste – not just a hop­py or sweet taste but a well-con­fect­ed one – which, ii) slips down eas­i­ly.

    I wouldn’t call Lagu­ni­ats IPA, or Punk IPA, say, drink­able. Stone IPA is though. Lib­er­ty Ale, not.

    Fuller ESB was (I think it’s changed in the last 15 years or so) a very drink­able beer.

    Sier­ra Nevada’s beers, all the reg­u­lar range and some of the exten­sions like Tor­pe­do, very drink­able.

    Wells Young Courage Impe­r­i­al Russ­ian Stout is very drink­able.

    Urquell on draft when very fresh, drink until you drop (well, two any­way).

    The old Director’s Bit­ter and Ind Coope Bur­ton Ale – super-drink­able.

    The old Young’s Bit­ter, not so, but Holt’s beer was (maybe still is).

    And so on – obvi­ous­ly a sub­jec­tive thing.

    Gary

  8. Just to add if need be, I like all the beers men­tioned above even though some are not “drink­able” in the per­son­al way men­tioned.

    Some­times you want a brac­er (one), which Lagu­ni­tas IPA or Punk IPA pro­vides, say.

    I see use­ful­ness to dis­tin­guish between “drink­able” beers you like and non-drink­able beers you like, in oth­er words.

    By def­i­n­i­tion, any beer you don’t like can’t be drink­able. They may be bland but in and of itself I wouldn’t call that drink­able.

    Gary

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