The John Smith’s Experiment: Conclusion

The head on a glass of water with 60ml of John Smith's.

We couldn’t find much to love in John Smith’s Extra Smooth, and we really did try. Given the uncontroversial recipe, we have to assume the cause of the problem is that widget — that little ping-pong ball which injects nitrogren into the beer on opening to create the weird, everlasting ‘creamy’ head.

Does it add flavour? We don’t think it should, but it probably does change our perception of the flavours, emphasising some and dampening others — an extreme version of the effect we notice when drinking a given beer both with and without sparkler.

But what to do with the remaining cans? Well, the everlasting creamy head has its uses. See that picture above? That’s a pint glass of water topped off with 60ml of JSES. It will put a head on anything, with only a small hit to the flavour.

When we opened a bottle of homebrewed stout and found it completely flat (it needed a few more weeks) we added the tiniest amount of JSES and, as if by magic, found ourselves with a far more appealing glass of beer.

A terrible, snobbish though has also occured to us: we frequently have visitors who don’t care much about beer — perhaps we can fob it off on them?

That’s the end of our John Smith’s experiment, but it has given us another idea: at some point soon, instead of slagging off JSES, we’ll taste all the readily available canned bitters blind and try to identify the best.

beer reviews opinion

The John Smith’s Experiment: Part 2

Here are our notes from the first of our 18 cans of John Smith’s Extra Smooth:

Surprisingly powerful aroma rising out of the glass. Not of hops but actually quite Guinness-like if we close our eyes – the black malt they use for colour? Very light body (watery) perhaps emphasises by the very thick head. Actually a decent amount of bitterness, but accompanied by something acrid – bile? (Eew.) Definitely more acid burn than we remember. A little hint of grassiness floating over the surface. Much nicer as the weird foamy head disappears.

Verdict: if we weren’t doing this experiment, we would pour this away. Not pleasant.

That first can was fridge cold (as per the serving instructions). Next we tried it at room temperature (better, less acrid); and, over the next few days, from a variety of different glasses, both cold and at room temperature.

It looked amazing served cold in a large brandy glass — like some gleaming amber pale ale ‘van ‘t vat’ in a Belgian bar. The attractive appearance didn’t fool our tastebuds, though, and, if anything, the shape of the glass emphasised that peculiar, burning, stomach-acid sensation.

Did we start to like it more? The honest answer is, no, we really didn’t: we found it less palatable with every can we consumed. Shame — if we had, it could save us a lot of time and money.

The thing that really puzzled us, though: who says this is easy-drinking, bland beer? It isn’t — it is a downright bizarre, odd-tasting product. It could probably be improved by replacing the dark malts used for colour with more-or-less flavourless, frowned-upon caramel for starters. (See the canned bitter Cain’s brew for Co-Op — not especially characterful, but not weird.)

We did not finish the slab.

There’s one more post on this subject to go, in which we discuss widgets, Extra Smoothness, and what we did with the leftover cans. (Though maybe we should have just done one really long epic to confound everyone who has heard rumours we write concisely…?)



The John Smith’s Experiment: Part 1

John Smith's packaging close up.

John Smith’s bitter is one of those beers which has become a byword for badness amongst beer geeks — the punchline to jokes, a shortcut to suggest the utter hopelessness of a crappy pub.

It is available cask-conditioned but is more usually seen as a keg beer or in cans in the supermarket. It’s usually heavily discounted — the cheapest ale available in the average Wetherspoons, for example, and always included in ‘two slabs for £X’ offers.

Roger Protz’s Real Ale Almanac suggests that the ingredients are pale malt, black malt for colour and high-alpha English hops for bittering, which intelligence was backed up by a slightly vague email from Heineken’s customer enquiry line.

That recipe doesn’t sound bad, does it? Not inspiring, but not bad. Not unlike many of the twentieth century bitter recipes Ron Pattinson posts on his blog on Let’s Brew Wednesdays. Kind of appetising, in fact, if you appreciate unassuming English bitters.

So we bought fifteen eighteen cans of the Extra Smooth variant, and spent a week drinking them, and nothing else.

What did we expect to find? Either:

1. that we would have our prejudices confirmed, recalibrate our tastebuds, and enjoy the beer we usually drink all the more; or

2. that we’d get used to it and, by persevering, get to know it, and so find its hidden depths with tastebuds more experienced than when we dismissed it several years ago.

This was an interesting experience for us in lots of ways.

More to follow in Part 2.


No Nonsense is Nonsense

John Smith’s have a carefully worked out ‘brand identity’: everything is written in the voice of a “no nonsense” Yorkshireman.

Screenshot of marketing copy from John Smith's.

But the funny thing is this: the idea that they can’t be doing with all that ponced up marketing bullshit… is marketing bullshit. There probably are some “no nonsense” businesses that employ marketing agencies, but we can’t think of any off the top of our heads.

Of course, big food producers (including breweries) have very good reasons to suggest that taking an interest in the taste, ingredients and process of manufacture is pretentious: we, the punters, ought to know our place, viz. buying and consuming without question.

When we asked for information on the ingredients in John Smith’s Extra Smooth (we’ll explain why another time) Heineken customer care (ee, by ‘eck, etc.) told us that it uses “premium malts”. There is definitely a tiny bit of nonsense in that phrase.

While we’re at it, here’s another example of ‘no nonsense’ as a brand value, this time from Newcastle Brown.

bottled beer The Session

Session #58: A Christmas Carol

Detail from John Leech's 1843 illustration for a Christmas Carol.
A detail from one of John Leech's 1843 illustrations for a Christmas Carol.

This month’s session is hosted by Phil Hardy of Twitter fame (@Filrd) who blogs at Beersay.

“There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavor, size, and cheapness were the themes of universal admiration.”

People often misunderstand these lines from A Christmas Carol, and they’ve been misused a million times to accompany images of plump roasted birds.

In fact, at this point in the book, Cratchit’s impoverished family are sitting down to a miserable Christmas meal, the centrepiece of which is a scrawny goose that they’re making the most of. The point is that Cratchit is a good man who tries to find the best in things, including Ebenezer Scrooge, and so has the true Christmas spirit in his heart, regardless of his poverty.

With that in mind, we were thinking about how important it can be to put beer snobbery to one side at Christmas.

If your eight year-old niece buys you a ‘Beers of the World’ selection pack from BHS, chill down those 330ml bottles of Fosters and San Miguel and bloody enjoy them. It’s a thoughtful gift.

If your Uncle Bert offers you a bottle of Greene King IPA in a clear bottle, take it with gratitude and show how much you appreciate it, because that’s someone reaching out, asking you to share a moment of good cheer, in the bleak midwinter.

If your Dad takes you to a pub for a swift one on Christmas Day and all they have is keg John Smith’s, savour every drop: you’re with your Dad in a pub on Christmas Day, you lucky devil.

Just enjoy the Christmas present and maybe next year you’ll get a bigger goose.