There’s a lot to learn from bad beer

Watneys Red Barrel beer mat.

Tak­ing the time to drink bad beer is a use­ful way to cal­i­brate the taste­buds, cor­rect your per­spec­tive, and stim­u­late the taste­buds. Some­times, it’s just about remind­ing your­self that bad beer is still beer and won’t kill you.

In this post, Ghost Drinker expos­es a guilty secret: many blog­gers and writ­ers use Carls­berg Spe­cial Brew as short­hand for the worst type of strong-and-nasty ‘tramp brew’, despite nev­er hav­ing tried it. (As adults, at least.) We’ve got two choic­es: get a can and give it a go, or stop refer­ring to it. We’re inclined towards the lat­ter. After all, we’ve always got War­ka Strong to fall back on.

On a sim­i­lar note, Gareth at Beer Advice points out how odd it is that a beer that ceased pro­duc­tion in the 1970s, before many beer blog­gers were born, remains one of the most talked about – that is, Wat­ney’s infa­mous Red Bar­rel, the bogey­man of bad British bit­ter.

Red Bar­rel was (we think) renamed just ‘Red’ in around 1971. Frank Bail­lie’s Beer Drinker’s Com­pan­ion (1973) describes Red as a ‘well bal­anced keg beer with a burnt malty char­ac­ter­is­tic’; and the analy­sis in this 1972 Dai­ly Mir­ror arti­cle (via Ron Pat­tin­son’s blog) sug­gest a respectable strength of c.3.6% abv – not as shock­ing­ly weak as we’d imag­ined from read­ing one polemic or anoth­er.

Does any­one who’s old enough to remem­ber drink­ing Red Bar­rel want to sug­gest a beer avail­able today that might give us an idea of its flavour and char­ac­ter? Maybe you even have some antique tast­ing notes in a crum­bling note­book? Or per­haps we’ve already been there with our John Smith’s Extra Smooth exper­i­ments?

Maybe we’ll just brew a batch, if we can find a con­vinc­ing recipe.

Bland is fine, homogeneous a problem

Three slices

In the past, we’ve been guilty of snip­ing at spe­cif­ic beers that annoy us with their bland­ness, but we now think that’s prob­a­bly the wrong thing to fret over.

In April 1972, con­sumer mag­a­zine Which? sur­veyed the most pop­u­lar keg bit­ters on the British mar­ket.

…none smelled very strong­ly in the glass – none was either unpleas­ant or very pleas­ant. As far as taste went, the over­whelm­ing impres­sion of our tasters was that none of the keg bit­ters had any very char­ac­ter­is­tic taste… we also car­ried out a stan­dard lab­o­ra­to­ry test for hop – bit­ter­ness. These results con­firmed how sim­i­lar the keg beers were.

The prob­lem here is the sim­i­lar­i­ty between the prod­ucts.

What we, as con­sumers, need to be wary of is a homo­ge­neous mar­ket which offers us no real choice. Bland keg bit­ters might not be to your taste, but it’s no bad thing that they exist as part of a var­ied land­scape which also includes stronger, dark­er, lighter, more flow­ery, lagered, Bel­gian, Amer­i­can and down­right wacky beers.

We haven’t yet seen an orig­i­nal copy of Which? from April 1972 but, for­tu­nate­ly, Christo­pher Hutt quotes from this arti­cle at length in his The Death of the Eng­lish Pub (1973).

Pic­ture from Flickr Cre­ative Com­mons: Three Slices by Nick Salt­marsh.