Must Try Harder

blind_tasting

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.