Generalisations about beer culture


We use the word ‘character’ a lot and, before craft beer, Michael Jackson often wrote about ‘beers of character’. It conveys something but… what?

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?

Person A and Person B compared: each thinks the others characterful beer is bland or over-the-top respectively.

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:

A quadrant chart: weak/mild vs. strong intense on one axis; simple/complex on the other.

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?


8 replies on “Character”

Would “recognisable” be another word to throw into the mix to explain character? I would define that as a beer that is distinctive enough that you could fairly easily identify it in a blind tasting. Harvey’s Best (again) is a good example. I thought Kernel beers were always characterful in the sense of recognisable too, although perhaps less so now there are so many variants on grapefruity IPAs out there.

“Character” to me implies a distinctive quality, perhaps acquired over time. Which new brewer would ever come up with a bitter like Jennings or Bathams?

As a writer, I find it useful to periodically discard words that have becoming cliches–and you’ve convinced me to think seriously when I use character in the future.

The term does arise from something real, though. To my mind, this quality is always cited to distinguish between *like* beers. If I say beer X, let’s say it’s a schwarzbier, has character, I mean it in comparison to other schwarzbiers. It’s pointless to talk about a schwarzbier’s character if what one is actually thinking about is a stout.

To state the obvious: taste is subjective, therefore descriptions of taste are as well. I cannot relate to many of the detailed tasting notes that some people write; what they write often doesn’t match how I taste the beers in question. It is a mistake to regard descriptions – your own or other peoples’ – as objective truths.

I wouldn’t get too hung up on the terminology: it’s the least important part of beer drinking.

A person’s character is those qualities that make them distinctive, and so it is with objects like beer. So I like Jeff’s observation that the quality is relative to the beer’s context (i.e. other schwarzbiers).

In context, I don’t think most readers have a problem understanding what we mean when we use the word. But maybe the more useful thing is not to tell them a beer has or lacks character, but to tell them why we think so.

Higher efficiency means I think greater yield in fermentable sugar, thus alcohol, with less unfermentable carbohydrates remaining than the earlier version. The dextrin and other complex carbs now reduced probably added to the sense of richness and taste, or character. It would be similar if he had retained the original malt but added a measure of unmalted grains or sugar. Character in the sense used generally means quality, IMO.


Great beers are that perfect combination of quality,consistency ,flavour and character. Brewers that concentrate on quality and consistency alone produce beers that tend ( at least to my palette ) be dull and boring

Character/personality is caused by the small batch to batch variations you get naturally in a biological product. However those variations should never be allowed to get too big so that you cannot recognise the beer. The variations make the beer interesting and it is this that makes you fall in love with the beer.

I have often said that if you want drinks of great character then you better employ characters to make them. Dull and boring people make dull and boring beers

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