The Joy of Beer

Illustration: pint emerging from psychedelic clouds.

Beer should bring you joy.

All kinds of beer can do this — bog standard lager, straightforward bitter, flowery IPAs, imperial stout, anything.

And all kinds of beer can do just the opposite.

It all depends on you, your taste, and the moment.

It’s the difference between a great pint of cask ale and one that, though you’d struggle to pin down the difference in concrete terms, is an utter chore.

A joyful beer hits the spot. Either it doesn’t touch the sides, or it makes you linger for an hour, savouring every sip. Even if only for half a second before you get back to the conversation, it demands your attention.

It ought to be between you and the beer, this moment of joy, but you might say to your drinking companions that it’s bob on, cock on, bang on, or perhaps if you’re feeling especially expressive not too bad at all actually. Or you might just sigh, “Aah.”

A beer that is a joy will make you want the same again. The problem is, it’s elusive, that first-drink-of-the-session jolt. Returns diminish.

The most reliable route to joyful beer is to stick to beers, breweries and pubs you trust. But there’s a joy in exploring, too, and the joy you feel on finding a good beer after three duds is among the most potent strains.

Joy needn’t mean fireworks. There’s joy in a nice mug of tea or clean bedsheets and beer ought to be the same kind of everyday, attainable pleasure.

Character

We use the word ‘character’ a lot and, before craft beer, Michael Jackson often wrote about ‘beers of character’. It conveys something but… what?

This Tweet got us thinking because we instinctively read into ‘character’ in this context an implication that the more characterful beer might also have been more challenging, or less universally appealing. That is, probably from the point of view of many people, worse.

We usually use ‘characterful’ to acknowledge that we think a beer is distinctive (that’s another one) but that we don’t necessarily like it, or dare to assume that others will either. (‘It’s certainly different, I’ll give it that.’)

As we talked it over, though, we realised the utter vagueness of the word. We’d always thought it was a more precise and useful word than ‘good’ — that someone could acknowledge a beer they dislike as having character — but now we’re not so sure. Can’t one drinker’s characterful be another’s bland, or another’s gimmicky crap?

Person A and Person B compared: each thinks the others characterful beer is bland or over-the-top respectively.

A beer can be weak and mild but still highly distinctive, e.g. (again) Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, but to people who aren’t tuned into these things, it’ll just taste like Doom Bar. Equally, someone not focused on the wackier end of craft beer might find those beers homogeneous — a general mess of sour, boozy, hazy, oily grapefruit juice. In other words, characterful is mobile:

A quadrant chart: weak/mild vs. strong intense on one axis; simple/complex on the other.

Those two circles mark where our imaginary Person A and Person B might locate ‘characterful’ — they’re quite close to each other really, aren’t they?

We suppose Person A might learn to love characterful bitters if they tried, and Person A could develop a taste for barrel-aged imperial stouts, but neither is going to find character in basic, well-mannered beers where it just doesn’t exist.

So maybe ‘characterful’ does still work, and does describe a quality of the beer regardless of the drinker’s palate?

 

Pondering Beers of the Year

As Golden Pints season draws near, we’ve found ourselves wondering how we go about choosing a ‘beer of the year’.

Should it be the one we’ve just declared the best beer in the world? Surely that must also be the best beer we’ve had this year?

Maybe it ought to be the beer that gave us the most profoundly thrilling single experience — the one that literally made us giggle with excitement and joy — even if subsequent experiences of the same beer were less euphoric?

Or how about our main squeeze — the draught beer of which we’ve drunk (quick calculation) more than 200 pints between us since January? (Flippin’ ‘eck — £700!) We must quite like that.

Then again, perhaps we should compensate for the kinds of biases which skew results on rating websites, to avoid more subtle, unassuming beers being overlooked — ones that are technically proficient, or good for their style, but totally boring in the grand scheme of things.

A lot of beers we’ve enjoyed this year weren’t consumed in anything like ideal conditions for achieving an objective view — should they be out of the running?

There are breweries out there trying really hard with limited funding, facilities and distribution — do we try to take into account ambition and intention? Indie Beer of the Year?

We could narrow the field by choosing a beer that’s new for 2014 (imagine if The Godfather just kept winning the Best Picture Oscar every year!) or perhaps even, given our interest in culture and history, the beer which best sums up 2014.

Mostly, we’re just pleased to have something else to over-think.