I talked some people through a beer tasting recently. The group were there to learn more about beer in general and get an overall idea about the flavours and varieties you can get with an eye on food matching. We chose a long list of beers, maybe 30, from around the world – England, Scotland, US and Australia. Nothing too crazy, only things which are easily available, but still picking the best that we felt we could, with a heavy bias towards American hops plus a few darker beers for balance.
The people we were drinking with wanted a beer menu, so we were talking them through all the beers. Because of their menu there was the C-hop bias as this is what we felt would work best. This one tastes like this because... it’s this style which means... this works great with food because... this has an interesting story... Simple stuff, nothing too beer-geeky. It was really interesting from my point of view to see how ‘normal’ people reacted to these beers, seeing which they loved and which they didn’t. Some we expected them to love, they hated, and vice versa. But the difficult bit came when we had to explain subtlety.
Some of the best beers were subtle. They are perfectly made and delicious but inherently subtle and not flavour bombs to blow your tastebuds away (but they were the beers we thought would sell best on the menu...). When faced with an American IPA and then trying to extol the virtues of a pilsner, it’s difficult, especially as I’d been exclaiming the importance of flavour intensity to match foods. How did this delicate lager now fit in?
The trouble was that we were drinking them in gulps then moving onto the next (not from IPA to pilsner but our thoughts were always wandering and comparing with half-finished glasses spread around the table). This is fine for big flavour but it doesn’t work with subtle one which require time, consideration and a few pints. You can’t easily fall in love with a lager or best bitter on one sip, but sit there with a pint of it and your heart is grabbed.
So how do you describe the joys of subtlety in a pint? You can’t say it’s got less flavour because the flavour just works differently, it’s deeper and wider rather than hard and fast down the middle. Yet these beers are the ones that more people will enjoy, they are simple, yet if you want to find more in the glass then with the best beers you can and will; you’ll pull out the hops, the yeast, the body, the finish and then, more importantly, there’s the sociability of drinking and chatting over pints (not over tiny pours of extreme beers).
I think the best beers in the world are subtle and simple – a great lager, a session ale. They are the beers I most enjoy drinking – DarkStar Hophead, Marble Pint, the irresistible Bernard Unfiltered, Taras Boulba, Brooklyn Lager and so many more; beers with great flavour which are enjoyable and unchallenging to drink, superb in their subtlety. However, look at the latest lists of the highest rated beers in the world and the majority are as subtle as a slap around the face from Louis Spence. As much as I love my tooth enamel being stripped by alpha acid erosion, simpler beers are just more fun to drink (which is something Fuggled discussed recently). The only difficulty comes when trying to describe it to others...