This week beer blogger Pete Brown tackles the thorny subject of flavour and explains why it is that despite everything, he is definitely not a snob
Much as I rail against it, there’s something that’s probably obvious to anyone who reads me, or has met me.
I am a beer snob.
Well, duh. Why would I have a column like this if I wasn’t?
The thing is, I’m privileged to be able to taste the best beers in the world on a fairly regular basis, and I get to call it work.
I enjoy flavour.
I know how to taste beer properly, and when I have to, I swirl and sniff, take a sip and roll it all around my mouth so it hits all the different taste buds, taking in a bit of air to enhance the flavour, and then swallow.
(You can’t spit out beer like you see people doing with wine. Sadly, you need to swallow it to get the full bitterness character – the finish is really important. So beer drinkers swallow; we don’t spit.)
The thing is, I don’t actually have a great palate. Humans are born with a huge variation in the number of taste buds on our tongues and the sensitivity of our olfactory bulbs – the bit of equipment in our nose that decodes the incredible complexity of the aromas that constitute most of what we think of as ‘flavour’. (Taste something, then taste it again while pinching your nose, and you’ll see what I mean.)
I’m at the relatively low end of the scale, with tools that are relatively blunt. Like many people in my position, I spent years thinking I was a sophisticated taster because I enjoy spicy curries, strong, mature cheese, and very hoppy beer, flavours that less discerning ‘wimps’ would baulk at. Not a bit of it. It’s just that people like me have such poor palates, you need flavours this strong to get things going, whereas people with higher concentrations of taste buds, so called ‘super tasters’, can detect subtlety that’s invisible to me and can find extremes physically painful to their sensitive equipment.
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Nevertheless, I’ve trained my palate, and I do the best with what I’ve got. It’s just about good enough for me not to be unmasked as a fraud within the beer tasting world, and I don’t show myself up when I get asked to judge beer and coder competitions.
Last week, for example, I had to taste 94 ciders in one day. When I told people this, many were jealous. But 94 is a lot. And when you get the delicious ones, the ones that bring your mouth and throat to life and compel you to glug like a wanderer at a desert oasis, you only get to drink as much of them as the ones that taste like glue or nail varnish remover.
It’s really tough, but somehow I never get any sympathy.
I get really offended by these bad products. Not just organoleptically (I promise you that’s a real word) but morally.
And this is where I come back to my snobbishness, and the precise extent and nature of it.
One of the enduring rules of the universe, or at least human society, is the 80-20 rule – 80 per cent of something is accounted for by 20 per cent of the people seemingly everywhere you look. So, on no factual basis whatsoever, I assume that twenty per cent of the population are like me – genuinely interested in the flavour of what they put in their mouths, actively seeking out and enjoying new flavour experiences.
“Pointing at someone’s drink and saying, “That stuff is sh*t; only brainless morons would drink it,” has never been a persuasive sales argument”
I then assume that about another twenty per cent could be persuaded to take an interest. Maybe they don’t every day, but if I put a few tasty beers in front of them, they’ll enjoy the journey, even if they don’t rush out to track down my obscure barrel-aged Imperial Porter afterwards.
That leaves about sixty per cent of the population (by my absolutely spurious, baseless calculation) for whom food and drink are fuel, a means to various ends, or who at least know what they like and stick to that, with no desire to push the boundaries.
My circumstantial evidence for these numbers is the fact that Carling is the biggest selling beer in Britain, and Strongbow the number one cider. Bland, lowest common denominator brands that gain scale by offending no one, just providing something that does the job.
And you know what? I’m fine with that. Seriously. Just because I like strong, complex flavours does not give me the right to pass judgement on people who favour blandness.
It doesn’t mean I’m better than them. (Apart from at beer tasting competitions, obviously.) Pointing at someone’s drink and saying, “That stuff is sh*t; only brainless morons would drink it,” has never been a persuasive sales argument, nor a successful way of making new friends at parties.
My problem is not with blandness. My problem is with stuff that actively tastes horrible, which is quite a different thing.
“It tastes of wet cardboard, thanks to the light nature of the beer and the clear glass bottle allowing sunlight to attack the beer and create what snobs like me call Hot Side Aeration (HSA)”
Take a certain popular bottled beer, usually drunk ice cold straight from the bottle with a wedge of lime in the top, closely associated with blue skies and golden beaches.
Three important things right there: coldness masks flavour, suppresses it. Lime completely disguises it. And drinking from the bottle creates the same effect as that little experiment of holding our noses – completely cutting off the sensitive flavour equipment in your nasal cavity.
Try drinking this beer from a glass, nicely chilled rather than ice cold, and with no lime in the bottle, and it’s not bland; it’s off. It tastes of wet cardboard, thanks to the light nature of the beer and the clear glass bottle allowing sunlight to attack the beer and create what snobs like me call Hot Side Aeration (HSA).
It doesn’t just taste horrible to me; it tastes horrible to anyone who drinks it in this way (I’ve done extensive tests), which is why this flavour fault is so cleverly disguised in the presentation of the beer.
This is not the only beer with a faulty, offensive flavour. And those ciders that tasted of nail varnish and glue and wet dog were all commercial brands openly on sale, aimed directly at the undiscerning drinker who spends his or her life believing that this is just what beer and cider taste like, and that’s why you drink them ice cold, or with a shot of lemonade, lime or, if you were a Goth back in the eighties, blackcurrant juice.
Because if you had them any warmer, or unadulterated, you’d be able to taste them. And that would be horrible.
So who is the real snob here? Me, for enjoying flavour? Or large corporations who cynically market something which they know tastes like shit, in the belief it’s ‘good enough’ for people who don’t like too much flavour?
Blandness is fine, because there are plenty of people who want it. But I don’t know anyone who
wants their drink to taste and smell like a wet dog.
Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. He was recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.