Beer Matters

How was it for you?

Whilst drinking beer is surely the most convivial of activities, tasting beer is by nature a solitary and subjective experience. How does one convey the sensation to others?

Some people regard tasting notes of any kind as pretentious drivel and I have much sympathy with that view; some of the high-flown prose churned out by wine writers (and CD reviewers, many of whom seem to have attended the same school of linguistic onanism) comes across as so much self-conscious clap-trap. But if we are to talk about beer at all (and there is another respectable school of thought which says “just shut up and drink it”), then we need a common vocabulary for the purpose.

50-odd years ago, my father and his cycling club mates endlessly debated the question “do we all see colours the same?”. We know that light of a certain frequency entering the eye consistently produces a visual effect which we have learned to describe as “red”, but does it produce the same sensation in my brain as it does in yours? Without being able to infiltrate someone else’s head we can never know. And it seems to me that the same conundrum applies to all the senses, including taste.

The only way we can describe a taste to others is by reference to other tastes. We can start with those which inherently belong to the substance being tasted. Here, beer has a significant advantage over wine, insofar as it has two principal ingredients. To describe a wine as “grapey” would be singularly unhelpful, but to describe a beer as “malty” or “hoppy” immediate conveys important information about the balance between the two main constituents and therefore the likely character of the beer. The term “yeasty” also says something useful about its condition and freshness. For that matter, “watery” is a pretty objective statement too.

After this we have to resort to “external” references. Some of these relate fairly obviously to characteristics of the malt and the sugars it releases during the brewing process: chocolate, caramel, toffee, liquorice. Other flavours may be traceable to oils in the hops and are mostly olfactory (a high proportion of what we think of as taste is actually smell anyway – try drinking with a clothes peg on your nose): oranges, grass/hay, spicy, nutty and floral aromas. Beyond this point, the whole exercise becomes increasingly esoteric and probably of limited value, although I was disappointed that no-one came up with any more interesting epithets to describe Romper’s Reins (last column but one).

Another approach is to define the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. Just as we might describe York Surprise Minor as “Cambridge above, London below”, so a new beer might be “Taylor’s Landlord on the nose and Harvey’s Sussex on the palate”. I just made that up – a fusion of two such distinctive ales seems improbable – but I might, for example, describe Gale’s Robin’s Revenge as “dilute ESB”.

So there it is, the language of beer – pretentious tosh or meaningful analysis? Or just a bit of harmless fun. So long as the ale is of good quality and we enjoy it, that’s really all that matters. Carry on drinking!


But just to prove that I don’t spend all my waking hours thinking about beer, here’s a little plaything I came up with the other day to keep you “black zone” ringers amused for an hour or three and a half:

Maximus Bibendus Cyclic TP Maximus
30X78X30.1t.30X78X30.1t.30X78X30.1t.30X90.56.30.1t.30.16X78.30.1t.30.58.3490X30.et
.30X56X30.1t.30X56X30.1t.30X56X30.1t.30X34.78.30.1t.30.7tX56.30.1t.30.58.3490X30.12 l.h 134567890et2

I’ll stand a round for the first band to ring a peal of it.

NB - The place notation as printed in the RW contained a typo - ‘712’ should read ‘7t’ as above.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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