demon diacetyl

The taste and smell of diacetyl is widely described as buttery, butterscotch or caramel and has become much maligned within the craft beer world. But to me, diacetyl (just a note – not an inundation) is usually a good thing, and outside craft beer it’s seen as such in cereals, popcorn and desserts – even in electronic vapes.

Diacetyl can act as a fondant edge to take away the copper coin brashness of beer – which is my earliest impression of ale from mid-teenagehood.

I’ve heard a tale – perhaps apocryphal – of a visit by the south Herts group of CAMRA to a local brewery some years ago. Once installed, a member plunged his head into a bag of hops (or perhaps pellets) and emerged beaming like one of the Bisto kids, ’diacetyl’, he purred, eyes rolling back to their whites.

I can believe this tale, though the subject’s ‘high’ is enhanced at each retelling (especially by me!). The problem is the flavour of diacetyl doesn’t come from the hops, but through the yeast as part of the brewing process.

With diacetyl in mind, I have fond memories of Zebedee – a golden ale by Rebellion Brewery from Marlow Bottom, Buckinghamshire. It’s one of those blonde hoppy ales that really shines in good condition and has some pleasant diacetyl – as in caramel.

I went on a pub crawl with my sister in Wallingford and had said Zebedee in the George Hotel. The beer was live, gambolling, golden and gleeful in the glass. Outside, sheet rain cascaded several feet from us so heavily it was like those light-cancelling Travelodge curtains. The deluge added to the comfort of the pub interior and the homely warmth of the session. Vigour, refreshment and comfort had a name: Zebedee – at least to me.

Zebedee had also been imbibed by a man I know in St Albans and we happened to relate our experiences of it. I told him I loved the beer – the balance was just right. His flesh started to blanch in recollection. He swivelled uneasily on the bar stool, underwear itchy. Eyes bulging, his features contorted into a grotesque rictus like a man forced to suck aspic jelly through a condom – diacetyl!

Appreciating a note of caramel isn’t the same as wanting to skoll a pint of caramel – it’s just a note. Butter is sickly.

The varied nuances of beer would be unpalateable if magnified to the extreme. Ale has downable appeal because these understated tastes balance eachother out; the bitterness against the sweetness – the greenery versus the granary.

But if it’s sweetness that so bothers people, now consider the darker beers on offer in a craft beer outlet. Marvel at the peanut butter, tiramisu, battenberg, marzipan, vanilla, hazelnut, tonka, maple and pecan. These are all quantum leaps from the benign sweetness of mild caramel – a mere squib in a munitions vault by comparison. From butter(scotch) we get to marzipan – something which I can barely lick for fear of being turned inside-out in odium.

It’s the hops isn’t it? With modern beers, anything standing in the way of lupulin had better go hard or go home. Is a note of diacetyl so knocked because it’s a hint rather than full-on Willy Wonka assault and contemporary brewing swerves such humility?

With the imperial strength beers, is the addition of nuclear confection actually a subliminal way of trying to balance out a beer, albeit by fighting fire with fire? TNT chlorophyll against thermobaric cloy? Does that 12% triple sundae and tonka rye IPA actually daydream of the refinement of a pint of well-kept Zebedee?

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