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. 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.

  4. 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”.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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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