We use the word ‘character’ a lot and, before craft beer, Michael Jackson often wrote about ‘beers of character’. It conveys something but… what?
Roar Sandodden has improved his malt quality in the technical sense. He gets higher efficiency now. But the beer has less character.
— Lars Marius Garshol (@larsga) September 4, 2016
This Tweet got us thinking because we instinctively read into ‘character’ in this context an implication that the more characterful beer might also have been more challenging, or less universally appealing. That is, probably from the point of view of many people, worse.
We usually use ‘characterful’ to acknowledge that we think a beer is distinctive (that’s another one) but that we don’t necessarily like it, or dare to assume that others will either. (‘It’s certainly different, I’ll give it that.’)
As we talked it over, though, we realised the utter vagueness of the word. We’d always thought it was a more precise and useful word than ‘good’ — that someone could acknowledge a beer they dislike as having character — but now we’re not so sure. Can’t one drinker’s characterful be another’s bland, or another’s gimmicky crap?
A beer can be weak and mild but still highly distinctive, e.g. (again) Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, but to people who aren’t tuned into these things, it’ll just taste like Doom Bar. Equally, someone not focused on the wackier end of craft beer might find those beers homogeneous — a general mess of sour, boozy, hazy, oily grapefruit juice. In other words, characterful is mobile:
Those two circles mark where our imaginary Person A and Person B might locate ‘characterful’ — they’re quite close to each other really, aren’t they?
We suppose Person A might learn to love characterful bitters if they tried, and Person A could develop a taste for barrel-aged imperial stouts, but neither is going to find character in basic, well-mannered beers where it just doesn’t exist.
So maybe ‘characterful’ does still work, and does describe a quality of the beer regardless of the drinker’s palate?