Must Try Harder


Lately, we have become aware of an Achilles’ heel in our attempts to think and write about how beer tastes, as opposed to its history and the culture that surrounds it.

On the rare occa­sions we declare a beer to be down­right bad, off or wrong, we find our­selves pressed to be more spe­cif­ic – to describe what we’re tast­ing in the tech­ni­cal terms brew­ers use amongst them­selves.

We’re not Heri­ot-Watt grad­u­ates and have nev­er even been on a short course. Any­thing we have learned has been from books. It’s hard to beat words as a means of con­vey­ing sen­so­ry expe­ri­ences, but even they can’t com­pete with expe­ri­ence.

We know quite a lot of the ter­mi­nol­o­gy and apply it, but not with great con­fi­dence. We get cor­rect­ed a lot. (Cor­rect­ed? On the inter­net!?) Our lack of con­fi­dence means we have to bow to those cor­rec­tions even when, as if often the case, we secret­ly think we’re right.

Per­haps we’ve resist­ed get­ting tech­ni­cal to an extent: know­ing the lan­guage does­n’t always mean a lot, and we’ve more than once been cor­nered by bores who know all the jar­gon and yet seem hap­py to drink pints that have turned us green with nau­sea.

And, inso­far as we enjoy read­ing oth­er peo­ple’s beer reviews, it’s those with evoca­tive prose rather than the ones that resem­ble feed­back sheets from a home brew­ing com­pe­ti­tion.

Any­way, we’re doing some­thing about it now: we’ve just splashed £90 on an ‘off flavours’ kit from Aroxa.

That’s £90 – enough for a case of very decent beer – for some pills that will make our beer taste nasty. The things we do in the name of blog­ging…

Smelling a Brothy Beer, 1975

Detail from a 1979 recruitment advertisement.
Detail from a 1979 recruit­ment adver­tise­ment.

In 1975,  Dave Bennett, a member of the Campaign for Real Ale, proposed a formalised ‘vocabulary of taste’ for beer to rival that used by ‘wine snobs’.

It seems to have been a pub­li­ca­tion of some sort, and we’ve put out feel­ers to con­firm that, and per­haps get sight of a copy.

In the mean­time, we’ve gleaned from the Dai­ly Mail of 17 Feb­ru­ary 1975 that Ben­nett attempt­ed to dodge accu­sa­tion of pre­ten­sion by sug­gest­ing that beer should have a ‘smell’ instead of a ‘bou­quet’, and pro­posed the fol­low­ing rather down-to-earth flavour descrip­tors:

  • black trea­cle
  • brisk
  • brothy
  • clean
  • grainy
  • greasy
  • hon­ey
  • metal­lic
  • rhubarb-like tooth-sharp­en­ing
  • vis­cous
  • warm­ing
  • mousey
  • oily
  • watery.

Trea­cle, mice, met­al and grease? Not so much French château as the two-up-two-down ter­race. We rather like ‘brothy’, even if we’re not quite sure how it applies to beer.

It would take anoth­er ten years for any­thing like this approach to take hold with­in CAMRA, and then not with­out oppo­si­tion (for more on which see Des De Moor’s essay in the 2011 anthol­o­gy CAMRA at 40).

This post is some­thing of an extend­ed foot­note to a pass­ing obser­va­tion we have made in the first draft of our book. Expect more of these in the months to come.

The sound of our own voices

A cou­ple of weeks ago, we got an email out of the blue invit­ing us to speak at the Eden Pro­jec­t’s food and drink fes­ti­val. Yes­ter­day, we gave the first of two talks on how beer is made and how to spot the influ­ence of malt, hops and yeast on the taste of beer.

There are few nicer places to spend a grey day than the Mediter­ranean bio­me at Eden and it was there, sur­round­ed by fra­grant cit­rus trees, that we did our turn. We used St Austell HSD to demon­strate ‘malti­ness’; a Ger­man wheat beer to demon­strate the impact of yeast; and Oakham Green Dev­il IPA to illus­trate the pow­er of hops. We also passed around dried hops for rub­bing and sniff­ing and pale malt for nib­bling.

It was great fun for us, not least because it gave us the chance to talk about beer with peo­ple who aren’t as obsessed with it as we are. (Not yet, any­way.) We had fret­ted over whether our talk was too basic or even patro­n­is­ing but it seems not. Mem­bers of the audi­ence:

  • gasped in amaze­ment at the aro­ma of the wheat beer, as if we’d per­formed a mag­ic trick
  • gasped a bit more, and laughed in joy, as they smelled and tast­ed Green Dev­il
  • asked us whether dark beers were stronger than light ones, as they’d always believed
  • were entranced by dried hops, com­ing up for sec­onds – “they smell like Jamaica, if you know what I mean, nudge, wink, say no more”.

We’re doing the talk again next Sat­ur­day and can’t wait. There is a bit more work to do, though, as we need to come up with a good answer to the ques­tion which left us scratch­ing our heads: “How come there are hun­dreds of new brew­eries but few­er and few­er pubs?”

Those who are in the Corn­wall on their hols and like Sharp’s beers might be inter­est­ed to know that, for the dura­tion of the fes­ti­val, Eden are also offer­ing what looked like the full cask range, avail­able in tast­ing ‘flights’. They also have the full bot­tled range, and we can per­son­al­ly vouch for the excel­lence of Sharp’s Bel­gian-style Hon­ey Triple and Quadru­ple Ale.

This was a pay­ing gig. The beers were bought by the Eden Project from our short­list. We haven’t been giv­en free sam­ples of any of the beers we used; but we did­n’t pay for the Oakham Green Dev­il that knocked our socks off the oth­er week, which was donat­ed by the land­lord of the Star Inn from his per­son­al stash.

Hop Smoke Tickling the Brain

Detail from the label of Oakham's Green Devil IPA.

We’re as tired of the fetishi­sa­tion of hops as much as the next blog­ger but, despite that, the two beers that have made us sit up and take notice late­ly have both been show­cas­es for bold hop­ping.

A cou­ple of weeks ago, we spent a hap­py after­noon in the back room of the Star Inn, Crowlas, help­ing Dar­ren ‘Beer Today’ Nor­bury work through his stash of free beer. The stand out of that ses­sion was Oakham’s Green Dev­il IPA (6%).

When we opened it, a wisp of vapour appeared at the neck, and then the aro­ma hit us, like smelling salts. If it had been a car­toon, there’d have been green ten­drils in the air, curl­ing their way into our noses and throats. Dave, who Dar­ren men­tions in his post, isn’t total­ly con­vinced by either super hop­py beers or by ‘tast­ing’ as a pur­suit, but even he could­n’t stop him­self exclaim­ing, wide-eyed: “Net­tles! Fresh­ly cut grass! Herbs!”

Those car­toon pong trails made a sec­ond appear­ance at the beer fes­ti­val at the First and Last in Sen­nen, near Land’s End, last week­end, when we bought our first pints of Moor Nor’Hop (4.1%). Even with a gale blow­ing; in typ­i­cal head­less fes­ti­val con­di­tion; and from a plas­tic cup, the fan­tas­tic aro­ma of the beer reached us long before we lift­ed it to our lips. Can we mea­sure aro­ma by height? Nor’Hop’s was a tow­er­ing 75cm or so.

Nor’Hop is also unfined, mak­ing it the first such beer we’ve con­sumed in the wild. Its cloudi­ness did­n’t put us off and might have con­tributed to a sense we had of its ‘juici­ness’; but we think it would prob­a­bly have tast­ed just as nice clear. Once we’d found it, we stuck with it, and drank noth­ing else until it was time to get a bus home through the fog.

Small Details Add Up

Small detail from a brewery logo.

We’ve writ­ten about the vari­ables in beer before, but this post on beer styles by Jeff ‘Beer­vana’ Alworth made us think more specif­i­cal­ly about the tiny vari­ables. These are the things that, on their own, might not be missed but which, togeth­er, add up to a unique fin­ger­print for a beer.

You can mea­sure a beer’s attrib­ut­es and repli­cate them and declare it ‘tech­ni­cal­ly the same’; and you can cat­e­gorise a beer and brew some­thing which match­es the ‘pro­file for the style’; but it’s the some­times bare­ly per­cep­ti­ble con­tri­bu­tions from peo­ple, process, place and ingre­di­ents that make it what it is.

Chemists can syn­the­sise straw­ber­ry flavour by break­ing down its chem­i­cal com­po­nents or make arti­fi­cial musk for per­fume. Tech­ni­cians can repli­cate the sound of a vio­lin or human voice with syn­the­sis and sam­ples. But, for now, what they end up with is some­thing that works in the mix, if you don’t pay too much atten­tion, and which will nev­er sat­is­fy some­one who real­ly knows their stuff.

With­out the small details – flaws or wrin­kles? – a beer can end up in the uncan­ny val­ley.

Could we hon­est­ly spot the dif­fer­ence between food-grade acid added to a beer and that which occurs nat­u­ral­ly dur­ing fer­men­ta­tion and mat­u­ra­tion? Hon­est­ly, maybe not, but we have tend­ed to per­ceive added com­plex­i­ty in the beers made with the most round­about, time-con­sum­ing, arcane process­es.

But maybe that’s psy­cho­log­i­cal?

Bonus points to any­one who can iden­ti­fy the brew­ery from the ‘small detail’ in the pic­ture above...