The word 'drinkability' has struck a chord over the weekend. As so frequently happens, it started on twitter and went from there. Woolpack Dave, Beer Reviews Andy and Pete Brissenden have all posted something; here are my thoughts (Warning: I freely add –ability to words it doesn’t naturally belong to).
Drinkability is one of the most important qualities of a good beer, but semantically it can be interpreted in different ways. Firstly, I don’t think ‘drinkable’ and ‘drinkability’ are the same thing. ‘Drinkable’ is something which is palatable but not necessarily something you will want much of - warm lager, cold tea, vodka and diet coke, for example. ‘Drinkability’, for me, suggests three qualities, which work (sometimes uniquely, but typically) together: something which is enjoyable in itself; something easy-drinking; and, something you’d want more of.
Enjoyability and drinkability go hand-in-hand, whether it’s a crisp lager or a full-on imperial stout. Lagers pride themselves on drinkability, especially the big brands which use it as a selling point (Bud Light's website tag line is the 'Official Home of Drinkability'). Imperial stouts, not known for their sessionability, can be wonderfully enjoyable and delicious. If a beer isn’t tasty then it won’t have drinkability and it will almost certainly fail in its main goal – to be enjoyed.
An easy-drinking beer is often labelled as having great drinkability. This is the main context in which I would use the term ‘drinkability’ and it’s often reserved for the stronger beers which retain a particular lightness and a quality which makes them very drinkable. To be easy drinking suggests that you can, and will, want lots of them, or, in the case of strong beers, it suggests that a serving will be enjoyed throughout.
Drinkability also means you will want more of it; it means re-buyability. If you have a nice pint in the pub then you’ll likely want to buy another one. It’s the same with a decent bottle, whether it’s 1.4% or 41%, and regardless of cost. This is probably the most important aspect of drinkability for me and will often be the culmination of the combination of enjoyability and easy-drinking. Re-buyability is key. If you won’t buy the beer again then it’s not successful. You might not want to have another one straight away, but the desire to have it again is important, even with the most extreme beers. I remember Garrett Oliver (somewhere) saying that a good quality of beer is the desire to want four pints (or servings) of it and neither be wasted nor unsatisfied. I think this is central to drinking British beers but the example can go beyond that for stronger beers which retain enjoyment and which you’d like a few servings of, either immediately or in the future.
Of course, on top of these three qualities there’s a time and a place for everything and context plays an important part. The example, and the beer which started the drinkability discussions, is Sink the Bismarck. It’s an extreme beer experience, boozy-hot, oily, rich, bitter to the upper limit, strong; an insane beer mind-fuck, creating new definitions. It’s a beer to sip in small quantities, to share around and to discuss, but it doesn’t have much drinkability. It’s a one-off-experience type of beer, best reserved with a special occasion or to whip out unannounced and poured around to see what people think. Its price point and the esoteric flavour do not make it the beer you buy in six-packs to keep the fridge stocked. One bottle is enough for anyone who can get it.
Drinkability is central to the enjoyment of beer, but context plays an important role. In its essence, to say that a beer has drinkability is to say that it is easy-drinking, tasty and something you’d want again. Drinkability is a quality which the majority of beers need but, sadly, some miss out on – I’ve had many average pints which are drinkable but do not have drinkability (blandness, lack of condition, lack of flavour, wrong temperature, served in the wrong context... all these affect drinkability and enjoyment). It’s also a very subjective thing dependant on time and place and context. It’s a complex issue, largely undefined, but very interesting. And it’s something brewers should be very aware of.
What does drinkability mean to you? How would you define it?