We need to be open to sensory experiences and challenge our taste buds. More conservatively minded beer drinkers from any country might simply see this as a phase arrived at through growing pains. And it should be noted – rightly so – that what a staple beer can lack in experimentation, it can often make up for in consistency.
With beer, the taste and aroma descriptions have only been popular for a very short time. Even the Daddy – Michael Jackson – was quite terse on the matter, often just defining a beer using a couple of well chosen words.
In a vlog from several years ago, I saw a beer I’m well acquainted with being reviewed by David Dowling (Urban Viking Ale Reviews) – Death or Glory by Tring Brewery.
It’s worth watching. He mentions a few staple tasting notes for strong ale like cinnamon and chocolate and also compares it to a Belgian dark ale. But then he talks of the sweet smell of fireworks in the atmosphere – acrid and smoky. These remarks are the kind of things I wish I’d ascribed to Death or Glory and I can’t now drink it without thinking of Guy Fawkes’ Night.
I know exactly what he means. I can shut my eyes and inhale this “purple” or “pinkish” burnt sweetness that drifts down from the November sky and even taste the toffee apples and wood snapping on bonfire. This reveals something significant: smell via the olfactory bulb is indelibly linked to memory. But how do I experience this in the first place? Via the taste buds, the nose or even psychologically? Well up to a point, I think it’s all three.
I made similar notes to David’s with a Nitro stout from Brew By Numbers several years ago – the taste/smell/memory was of opening an electrical cupboard after a fuse had blown. Through which sense does this get into the mindset?
Obviously, it’s easy to go over the top with lush adjective-heavy paeans to beer (it’s how I got into beer writing), but I like how it shows a celebration of beer more descriptive than wine. It proves beer’s being taken seriously.
It also highlights a benefit to being open-minded: the pursuit of pleasure and a willingness to engage with the unknown. In order to appreciate the new fully, you must put aside assumptions and switch the solenoid from active to passive to let new experiences do things to you.
How open should you heave the doors of perception? Being a seeker of craft beer requires that the doors are pulled pretty wide otherwise you’re a closed portal. To imbibers of bitter, a Lambic might always make their eyes water. To sippers of Lambics or sours, a bitter might seem like quaffing sugar.
But with the doors flung wide, you’re left vulnerable.
On my right shoulder sits an imp called Fuggles. He’s a very traditional elemental with a well-nourished paunch and a fondness for festival T-shirts and progressive rock. He’s a baby boomer and remembers fashion trends from when they first came in, rather than post-ironically. Wakatu squats on my left shoulder – a sprite with kebab physicality and meticulously sculpted facial hair. Both are cynical in their own ways. They take turns opining into my lug holes.
Fuggles opens: “Might the liquid in those Hackney fermenting vessels actually be stale topped up by aftershave and with a nucleic ingredient thrown in from desperation – scotch bonnets maybe, just to block out actual taste? And if it scorches the gullet, shearing the sensory apparatus within, how to sell this beer that went awry in its alchemy?” He pauses, reeling me in.
He lowers his voice further: “To make people drink poor quality beer all you have to do is ‘up’ the price – it’s the modern art effect. Let the geeks descend on it casting their sluices as wide as they can. Have you ever scrutinised a Rothko where your scepticism parked itself to try and see the canvas for the town it’s intended to be rather than just layers of paint? You’re not persuaded but you might be wrong. It has a price tag of several millions. There must be a valid reason for that – it’s just that you’re not getting it yet. Or maybe it’s just a ridiculous price for some art that isn’t very good but that can’t be it – that would be too obvious.” Fuggles snorts through the grille of a sadistic grin. He has my attention.
This is craft beer. Quite a lot of the time.
Is it only in retrospect that we realise beer was bad and we were caught up in the romance of the moment? This is, after all, a trope of city breaks to countries of the vine: the wine is sublime sipped on the cobbles or in the intimacy of flickering candle light. When a few of these bottles survive the journey back to damp Blighty and are uncorked, they just revert to being dry off-licence plonk.
But then again, some beers that I wrote tasting notes for years back – pushing my powers of tolerance to the extreme – I later realised were ales that were flat, off, or down to the bloody finings! And yes – I paid full whack for each one. Where was Fuggles to guide me then?
However, this open-mindedness is also responsible for the resurgence of sour, spontaneously fermented, Saison and Brett beers amongst many others. You could even add the mighty porter and IPA to that list. A decade ago they were obscure. It was those unprejudiced with an eager palate that ensured their comeback.
Sensing my doubt, Wakatu sees his opportunity and tugs anxiously on my earlobe. He begins to whisper to me – eyes darting, conspiratorial. He warns me of the real ale wahabists and their censorious cult of beige:
“We know the breweries in your home county and beyond that succumb to this self-deprivation, but we shan’t name them. A portfolio of three varying hues of amber and yes, I’m aware of the stereotype but it’s they that are bound to it – not us!” Wakatu’s piercing green eyes narrow further. I marvel at his beard: it could’ve been forged in ancient Athens.
“Combining the four ingredients that make most beers gives a huge number. Let’s say the only constant is water from the brewery bore hole but you have access to ten malts, four types of yeast and thirty hop varieties. Potentially, this gives one thousand two hundred different beers, yes?”. He beams encouragingly. I nod dumbly – assuming the maths are correct.
“But it’s only ever the same three: the pale one at 3.8 ABV is a fruity beer with a malty nose and smooth finish, the golden ale at 4.2 ABV is malty beer with a fruity nose a dry finish, and the brown one at 4.5 ABV which is a smooth beer with lots of character and a fruity finish.” I picture this. He’s not wrong. The descriptors are interchangeable.
He continues: “For the festive season, a couple of bags of sugar and a handful of cloves can be thrown into a gyle of the brown one. The pump clip will show Santa compromised by a woman with enormous breasts to which LED lights can be added – for the name, think along the lines of Christmas Cracker, Santa’s Sack or Jingle Balls. It’s a cherished tradition popular with all demographics…..”
Fuggles swears at Wakatu across the divide. Shaking his fist only draws out mirth and Wakatu convulses, sounding like frayed bellows.
This is real ale. Quite a lot of the time.
Does it mean the ale is bad? Of course not. If you’re an incurable optimist, each might be one of the best experiences you’ll ever have. On the other hand, it could be why a generation is eschewing traditional real ale for the comparative thrill of craft beer.
I’m an inbetweener – somebody too young to remember the inception of CAMRA and the primacy of Watney’s Red Barrel that it stood up to, yet someone who often feels too grey to fit in with the craft beer crowd. I can’t recall leather footballs, but I can remember Leonid Brezhnev and when Tom Baker was the scarf-flung Doctor. Beer, me and the time lord have changed so much during these four decades.
But is taste real or is beer actually all in the mind?
The power to shut yourself off from either camp as a matter of faith can be exemplified by a man I met at the St Albans beer festival a few years ago. He had managed to block out both. His raison d’être was based on his masochistic hatred of beer – it’s what he didn’t like that he enthused about. He would only drink blonde beers by Oakham. I remember his most prominent wrinkles were under the corners of his mouth from listing beers and breweries that he loathed and grimacing. And yet, he was happy.
He kept finding me, eager to reel off other brewers he abhorred – it made his eyes light up. He would materialise suddenly from the shadows regardless of which bars I wafted by, seemingly from out of my pocket sometimes. I could leave him behind yet I’d meet him again up ahead and he’d make further proclamations of bile. I started to wonder whether other people could see him.
Both Fuggles and Wakatu have suggested that this man might just have been a personification of internal conflict and an increasingly discerning palate within me. In fact, It’s the only thing they’ve ever agreed on….