Friday 18 March 2011

The joy of subtlety; the complexity of explaining it

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...


  1. It's not just the subtle beers that are the ones that get non-beer geek friends into good beer, I think as long as they have an element of drinability then they can also have plenty of flavour. The ones that are tasty and sastifying but can actually be drunk for a good few pints.

    I've had this experience with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on Keg, Brooklyn Lager, but also the new Punk IPA on Keg, which is anything but subtle.

    I think craft from keg is a great way to tempt non real ale drinking friends onto good beer because it feels like less of a jump and the dispense, presentation and temeprature are similar to what they're used to.

    That said, something like Leeds Pale, a beautiful, subtle, refreshing pale ale is a perfect example (and shown in your pic from I'm guessing the Brewery Tap in Leeds?)of a beer that takes time to appreciate but has been really popular with people I've introduced it to.

  2. Well said!

    As much as I like a Belgian Trippel or a thick porter, some of the most enjoyable experiences I've had tasting have been light old-school Belgian Saisons & well made lagers (ie some light Kolsch's, pilsners etc).

    Saison, for instance, (sorry for fact-time) was developed for hard-working Wollonian farmers. So the old versions are thirst quenching and fresh. There is a time and place for subtle beers - that's for sure - and they should get some respect.

    Onya Mark

  3. You're quite right that the wonders of subtlety get overwhelmed by rapid comparisons. I wouldn't call marble pint or hophead subtle though!

  4. Simplicity can't be explained, it has to be understood, for that, you need to realise that louder, bigger, stronger or any other -er doesn't mean better (nor worse).

  5. Well said that man! Just because the ingredients are simple and traditional "classical instead of hysterical" as AJT would have it, doesn't make the beer anything less than an imperial barrel aged fruit infused IPA or some such. With nowhere to hide, the makers of simple, classic beers are the true heroes of the beer world.

  6. I was asked yesterday by a US beer writer why the high ABV / Extreme craze took off. I asked how often he wrote about subtle beers vs extreme beers. It's lazy to talk about extreme - that's easy.

  7. What Ed said. Marble Pint makes me feel like I'm in some bizarre Heston Blumenthal flavour experiment - "pick up the glass, now sniff this pine air freshener while I set light to these dead leaves..."

  8. I wouldn't thank you for most of the supposed top hundred. I don't mind an odd pint of stout but they soon induce overkill in me.
    Hawkshead Bitter, Derwent Carlisle State Bitter, Brimstage Trapper's Hat. All 3.8% or less but perfect examples of the brewer's art.
    I agree with the comment about Belgian beers too. Senne and Jandrenouille have shown the way with flavoursome low gravity beers. I wouldn't have Rochefort 8 in the top 100 Belgians any more never mind the world.

  9. "normal people" - Love it ;)
    We call beers with more subtle flavours, 'Beers with Drinkability'. (or downability as some of my friends put it)

  10. I really couldn't agree more, but 30 beers in a tasting...cripes that really is a lot!

  11. dont you mean bland not cant try hophead or pint then try a pale lager too its wide a jump in taste.Camden is a new London brewer- great.They brew craft beer -great but the Camden lager is (whats the word)ive got it BLAND. CHEERS JOHN