Sort of Not Our Problem

Thermometers and temperature illustration.

How important is it to store and serve beer at the exact temperature prescribed by the brewer?

That’s the question that we were left asking ourselves after discussion around last Friday’s porter tasting post.

The fact is, we don’t have an elaborately constructed ‘cellar’, and we don’t have thermometers on hand for every stage of the process.

What we do have is a kitchen with a shady corner the temperature of which barely changes; and a fridge. We don’t let beer get hot or freeze, and we protect it from light.

In practice, we give those that we think need chilling an hour or two in the fridge; otherwise, we serve straight from the shelf. If a beer we’ve chilled tastes bland, we let it warm up in case that might reveal hidden depths.

And that’s about it.

Serving temperature should not make or break a beer. Some beers might taste better served within a particular range, but they shouldn’t taste disgusting, gush everywhere, or have no condition whatsoever if served otherwise, surely?

Clean glasses on the other hand…

The phrase ‘beer clean’ has a smugness about it that makes our toes curl, but there is something in it: serving a beer from a glass that’s anything less than gleaming can instantly kill it, or at least cause it to pour fizzy and headless.

We always clean our glasses just before serving, giving them a good dose of washing up liquid, a scrub with a clean sponge, a thorough rinse with piping hot water, before a final rinse with cold water.

If a beer has no head after that, it’s not our fault.


Franklin’s Second Rule of Beer Tasting

“The truth is that in beer there are the same components… that make fruits, flowers and spices and all the rest smell as they do. So before you pick up the glass, start believing that beers can taste of anything. From TCP to elderflower through citrus tastes of orange and grapefruit to toffee to cardboard — anything. Once you open your mind to this possibility you’re on the right track.”

Pioneering British brewer Sean Franklin in ‘Tasting Beer’, Brewer’s Contact, September 2006.

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Social Realist Tasting Notes


Tasting notes can sound pretentious because much of the traditional language is borrowed from the world of wine, and refers to a lifestyle with which few of us can connect.

Last Friday, in the wake of this post, we pondered aloud on Twitter about whether ‘piney’ is really a useful tasting note.

What we meant, of course, is that, although we’ve used it from time to time, it isn’t especially meaningful to us, and apparently refers to a set of aromas (and flavours?) that we find better evoked by references to vegetation (weediness) or fruit.

Many people stepped up to defend ‘piney’, but what struck a particular chord were those responses which were variations on this statement:

Now, the nearest we’ve ever been to a Californian redwood forest is watching Return of the Jedi, but everybody’s cleaned the bog, so Harpic, to us, is far more resonant.

This got us thinking about how, without really having made a point of it, we’ve been drawn towards using ‘social realist‘ beer tasting notes for some time.

The standardised language gives us ‘tinned corn’ and ‘baby sick’ to work with, of course, but we’ve also found ourselves referring at various points to:

  • Pub carpets.
  • Hairspray.
  • Tinned peaches.
  • Sweets — rhubarb and custard,  Opal Fruits (aka Starburst), Fruit Salad, Black Jacks, Parma Violets.
  • Roll-up cigarettes.
  • 2p coins.
  • Soreen.
  • Juice from the bottom of the wheelie bin.
  • Bingo markers.
  • Gripe water.

The problem is, those are just as meaningless as ‘horse blanket’ to anyone who doesn’t share our cultural or class background. (Hell, we don’t even share quite the same cultural or class background as each other — Bailey’s never had gripe water, and Boak grew up in a cigarette- and bingo-free household.)

And, however sincerely dragged from the sense memory, we suppose they might sound pretentious in their own way, too.

Perhaps it depends what you hope to achieve with your tasting notes: if it’s universal understanding, and you’re not bothered about rhetorical flourish, then get scientific; if you want to speak fluent ‘Jacksonese’ to other beer geeks, then stick to horse blankets and sherry; but if the notes are really for your own benefit, with the hope that they might occasionally resonate all the more deeply with at least one other reader, then you have to find your own language.

At any rate, we think a good rule of thumb is probably to avoid describing flavour or aroma by referring to things you’ve never tasted or smelled — “This beer’s aroma is reminiscent of the aroma of a different beer that Michael Jackson once described as piney” is a bit naff, isn’t it?

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Though we’re pretty confident when it comes to our beer history these days — or at least the bit between 1963 and now — we’re still very much learning when it comes to tasting beer.

We can’t usually identify specific hop varieties, for example, so we have to make do with spotting big, obvious characteristics* — playing with the Duplo, rather than the Technics.

Though serious tasters apparently consider it rather crude, we still find ‘hoppy’ a useful word, at least when we’re talking to each other. It means, to us, a beer in which the dominant ingredient is hops.

(‘Hoppy and malty’, we agree, is therefore not a helpful tasting note.)

The doodle above is a version of something that we scribbled in notebook over a few beers, as we attempted to understand the various types of hoppy we are capable of perceiving.

STEWED is the one that’s newest to us — until recently, we’d hardly had any beers that had a ton of hops without also having a ton of obvious aroma.

The historical pale ales we tried at the Birmingham Beer Bash tasted strongly of hops without having much aroma at all; Marston’s Old Empire IPA might be another example. Are there others that you can point us towards?

And which beers (ideally readily-available in the UK) do you think best exemplify our other sub-categories?

* How much do we actually want to learn? Maybe not too much more. And aren’t most people who claim to be able to spot this hop or that… bullshitting?


Kölsch as a Test of Mettle

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.

Kölsch, the native beer style of the city of Cologne, is subtle at best, and bland at its worst.

One of our earliest self-imposed challenges back in 2007 was trying to perceive any difference between Kölsch and other pale German ‘lagers’, and to identify any differences between the various brands. (Excuse our naive references to ‘ale’…)

We were interested to hear, therefore, that London brewery Meantime uses Cologne as a proving ground for their beer-sommeliers-in-training. This is an excellent idea, and makes perfect sense for a brewery which specialises in rather tasteful German-style beers.

Until recently, we would have said that there was no point in drinking Kölsch anywhere but on its home turf. On the way to the UK in kegs or bottles, it generally seems to lose whatever slight magic makes it worth drinking, especially when dumped into a pint glass.

Thornbridge Tzara has changed our minds. Having enjoyed it by the pint at the Craft Beer Company in Brixton on a hot summer evening last year, we didn’t hesitate to order a case during the Derbyshire brewery’s recent free shipping spree (12 bottles for £23.80). We dug out a couple of dainty 200ml glasses and have demolished most of that case in the last fortnight.

If we’d been mugged by Tzara, our description wouldn’t help the police at all: it has no especially distinguishing features that would, on paper, set it apart from most other decent, balanced lager beers. It is a pale yellow, hinting at green, and has a fluffy white head. There are some bubbles. If we try really hard, we can perhaps detect some fresh herb (mint?) and soft-fruit (strawberry) aroma, and also maybe a reminder of crisp pizza dough.

What it is is completely, perfectly, gleaming clean; and as fresh-tasting as if it had just been hoisted up in a barrel from the cellar of a wood-panelled beer hall in the shadow of the Kölner Dom. All the ‘hints’ and ‘notes’ in the world can’t beat that.

Kölsch, then, is a test for the palate, a challenge for the technically minded brewer, and yet, at the same time, a rather uncomplicated beer that can be enjoyed for £2 a bottle. What’s not to like?