Sunday, 21 February 2010

Drinkability in Beer

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?


  1. "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."

    More or less right I'd say except:

    it doesn't need to be easy drinking. It does have to be something you'd want again and again, in the same session. One after the other.

    Wooly Dave is just plain missing the point. You are in the penalty box, but not hitting the net.

    Both of you think that drinkability is something to do with "time and place and context". It isn't. It is to do with the beer itself.

    The "time and place and context" is a red herring, but a subject in its own right.

  2. For me, being 'easy drinking' is an important part of drinkability, I think. If it's a challenging drink then it doesn't have a natural drinkability, but that doesn't necessarily detract from it being a good or great beer. Also, some beers are very drinkable but their strength stops them from being the sort of beer you can drink 3 or 4 of in a row.

    And context is key to every beer. Drink a world class beer alone in a dark box and it'll be rubbish. Drink the same beer with other people at the right time and place and it's exceptional. You can drink a shit beer at the right time and place and it's great. Context is everything, it's a subject in it's own right also, but it is very key to each beer, I think. Maybe it doesn't affect the drinkability, per se, but it'll affect the overall experience of the beer, plus a strong stout loses drinkability in summer but likely gains it in the winter.

    Like I say, drinkability is a complex issue!

  3. This article has incredible readability, very different from readable.

    Drinkability to me implies an ability to session the beer. As we discovered together, this can be different depending on who is doing the drinking. I also think it implies an overall softness of flavor. An example from your trip out here might be Marin vs Russian River Porter. Marin Porter has incredible drinkability as it almost encourages you to take big gulps and kill the pint. Russian River's is a bit sharper on the tongue and naturally slows you down a bit.

    High drinkability and high ABV combine to test your drunkability, such as finding your way home in a foreign land or blogging while buzzed.

  4. "Drink a world class beer alone in a dark box and it'll be rubbish. Drink the same beer with other people at the right time and place and it's exceptional."

    Is it then a "world class beer"? If the beer cannot stand on its own two feet, without the external stimuli of mates, local pub and whatever else rocks your boat, then can it said to be truly world class? Let's not confuse drinkability, or even being a world class beer, with having a great experience.

    "You can drink a shit beer at the right time and place and it's great."

    I disagree entirely, sure it might do the job of quenching thirst, but that doesn't make it drinkable in the sense of being something you would take pleasure in, when in various contexts.

    Context is important, but not to the drinkability or quality of a beer, but rather to the experience for the drinker.

    If context is so vital then it brings into question the validity of the craft beer movement, because the beer itself becomes irrelevant in the name of context.

    Good beer is always drinkable, not always something you want to drink though, what you want to drink depends on the whimsy of the drinker.

  5. That really made me think. Great points, and I agree with most.

    To me, drinkability has always been my ease of drinking. I love terms such as darngerously drinkable. It means that the beer is very easy to drink, but with a high abv, it is dangerous to drink them all.

  6. Couple of things occur.

    This idea that drinking a world-class beer alone will somehow diminish the experience. Cobblers. A great beer is a great beer, and the only things that will fuck with it are poor storage or serving. I like drinking with friends, but sometimes doing that is at the expense of being able to drink great beer.

    Then you talk about the new BrewDog beer 'creating new definitions'. If it's beer, then we have some usable definitions that should suffice. I feel there's still a whole debate about how to define beer. That question is hanging following the 'is beer the new wine?' thing. If 'Bismarck' were your example, what would the language look like?

  7. Mario, drunkability... I like it! Too much drinkability in those strong beers and it's dangerous!!

    Al, good point, I've not been clear enough with my comment there - the good beer in a box example should refer to the experience rather than the drinkability, but I still think the experience of it reflects back on the drinkability and your thoughts on it at the time.

    I do think that a bland beer (a major brand, for example) can be good given the right context. Mythos in Greece is one of my favourite beers, it's wonderfully drinkable and perfect for the place. Drink it at home and it's not the same experience; the beer is the same, the context isn't and the experience isn't as good. Thirst quenching or not.

    And I still think context is important. The most drinkable barley wine can be almost unpalatable in the wrong context (on a sizzling hot beach, for example). I disagree that context questions the validity of the craft beer movement because beer doesn't exist in a bubble. I can drink the same beer all over the world in many different circumstances and each will be different and each experience will be unique and that doesn't detract from beer, it adds to it, I think.

    BaltimoreMan, I like a dangerously drinkable beer too, it suggests a great potency but also a great experience and taste.

    Anon, right back atcha.

  8. Drinkability is simply that it is a nice drink you would have again. Not an interesting drink with a fascinating hop bitternesss. Simply one that is nice. Drink something popular enjoyed by millions rather than geekey shite and you’ll discover what drinkability is.

  9. Going a bit off topic:

    Context is VERY important, and that is why all that thing of "the best beer in the world" is utter bollocks.

    Back to topic:

    I think different beers have different drinkabilities. I can have a bottle of a 15%ABV Barrel Aged Imperial Stout and really enjoy every drop, but not feel like having another one right away, nor the day after, when I might go to a hospoday and sink four pints of a good jedenáctka and feel a could have another one if I had enough time.

    Which, I think, is basically what you want to say here...