Wednesday, 27 May 2015

It’s the taste, innit?

Some years ago I used to have discussions on motoring-related Usenet groups with a retired Cheshire traffic police officer called Kevin Lunn. It was tangential to the main issues at hand, but he did at one point say he was a connoisseur of malt whiskies. However, he insisted that he only had one or at most two glasses when at home, and drank them entirely for the taste, as he wasn’t aware of any alcoholic effect whatsoever.

I found this a bit strange at the time, although I have no reason to believe it wasn’t a genuine statement. But it does reflect a sentiment I’ve often heard from beer enthusiasts that the alcoholic content gets in the way of their appreciation. For example, I recently saw this comment by Nick Boley on Boak & Bailey’s blog:

“...we do need as a society to differentiate to some extent to those who drink because they enjoy the flavour and accept intoxication as an unwanted occupational hazard, and those who drink to get intoxicated regardless of what it is they’re drinking.”
But this is rather missing the point. Alcoholic drinks first developed precisely because of their intoxicating effect, and it was only later that people started to appreciate that some tasted better than others – although probably the first spontaneously fermented fruit juice wasn’t all that bad. It was only relatively recently – within the last 150 years or so – that ordinary people in developed societies got the opportunity to buy alcoholic drinks that weren’t the staple produce of their own locality. Yes, wine had been shipped long distances for thousands of years – remember the Quinquireme of Nineveh and its cargo of sweet white wine – but in countries like England it had always been a luxury product confined to the rich.

In reality, the presence of alcohol is essential to the taste of alcoholic drinks, and as they become stronger it becomes more important. The flavours become more intense and complex, but you know you must imbibe more sparingly, so it’s a fundamental limitation. There is, broadly speaking, a trade-off between taste and effect. Products deliberately produced to have a lower level of alcohol than normal usually taste rather lacking, even if palatable enough.

And it’s wrong to suggest ordinary drinkers drink purely for intoxication. Of course they are interested in the effect, but more often than not it’s for relaxation or companionship, not getting drunk for the sake of it. The average number of drinks consumed per drinking occasion is probably well under two. Even then, they choose the drinks that they like the flavour of. Only alcoholics pour stuff down their necks regardless of the taste. Yes, the enthusiast may be more selective in their choice of drinks, but if they’re routinely drinking in situations where non-enthusiasts wouldn’t, they might need to consider whether they have a problem.

And some of the brews that have sprung from the craft beer movement which are extreme in strength and/or flavour may be magnificent examples of the brewer’s art, but aren’t things that realistically any normal person is going to consume in a social setting.


  1. I think it is a little unconsidered to say that some people drink for relaxation rather than for intoxication. Many people, myself included, find that a taking a few drinks enables a state of relaxation that would otherwise be impossible to achieve.

    Or, as a more literate person than me said: "Wine smooths off the sharp edges of reality"

  2. I agree up to a point, beers of about 4-5% are to my mind a pretty good compromise between effect and flavour, and to me flavour is the most important.

    Anything above that (the 4-5%) and we're straying into Barley Wine territory. Higher strength beers the flavour part drops off remarkably, and I think with rare exeption (notably Belgian beers) they're all pretty awful in my view.

  3. @David - that's sort of what I'm saying. Yes, you do drink it for the effect, but that effect is usually just smoothing off the sharp edges rather than oblivion, and you choose *what* you drink on the grounds of taste.

    @Budvar - personally I agree, and don't routinely drink beer either in the pub or at home above around 5-5.5%. But a lot of the stuff the craft mavens champion is mega-strong, and that's where you run up against the brick wall of alcohol content if you want to sample more than a handful.

  4. Agree with you that "it's a bit more complicated than that" on liking the taste vs drinking to get intoxicated. I'd guess that for most people, drinking something that tastes nice and ending up a bit merry go hand-in-hand, and that both are part of the enjoyment.

    Don't really agree on strong beers, though. Maybe it's not "normal" (for beer drinkers, in the UK, over the last hundred years or so) to have a drink that's over 6% ABV but get a smaller measure and drink it more slowly, but it's hardly rocket science.

  5. The Blocked Dwarf27 May 2015 at 19:02

    Only alcoholics pour stuff down their necks regardless of the taste

    Only some alcoholics- those of the 'drink meths if nothing else is to hand' sort. There are, as I'm sure you are aware, as many types of alcoholics as there are alcoholics themselves. My sort would probably have to be not just broke but destitute before drinking some of the newsagent vodkas or Crème de menthe...

  6. Many beer enthusiasts and CAMRA members are puritans.

    For a puritan, getting drunk is sinful and wrong. Not for what you might do when drunk, but intoxication moves you farther from God. They may not even have faith, but have bought the line that getting drunk is bad all way from the influence religions had on our current perceptions of what is moral.

    You can get drunk quite safely and harmlessly and enjoy it as an occasional pleasure on a day you're not working. To a puritan this is bad in an of itself and unrelated to any effects that might cause harm.

    Many wine enthusiasts revel in a "bon viveur" type identity, beer enthusiasts like to take it all very seriously. Maybe it's a reaction against the lack of respect in society for beer enthusiasm compared to wine enthusiasm. Maybe it's a desire to separate themselves from the herd and advocate special privilege in a censorious society that is increasingly anti drink. Beer geekery seems to have a lot in common with people that collect comics and toys and keep them in pristine condition rather than enjoy them.

    It doesn't seem to matter whether you are cask or craft, the ability to suck the joy out of a drink is a noticeable feature that separates the beer enthusiasts from the regular drinker.

  7. @DaveS - in virtually all beer-drinking countries, the norm has traditionally been to drink beers of what counts locally as sessionable strength, say under 6%. While there have been stronger beers, they have tended to be consumed in isolation as the last drink or whatever. Belgium had plenty of strong specials, but most drinkers still drank Jupiler and Maes Pils.

    The craft movement, especially in the US, has produced a much wider variety of very strong beers, and it's here that alcohol content starts to become a problem if you want to taste a variety. Of course you can compensate by having smaller measures and drinking more slowly, but this has never until recently been a commonplace pattern of beer consumption.

    @Blocked Dwarf - yes, I know that some alcoholics actually do drink the good stuff. But I don't think anyone who drinks white cider or super lagers can claim they're doing it because they prefer the taste.

  8. Cooking Lager: Yes, +1

  9. Professor Pie-Tin29 May 2015 at 12:18

    On a virtually unrelated subject I was told by my doc to give up caffeine because of a problem with the old ticker.
    I dreaded the thought of decaff - because freshly-ground Mocha Parfait from the Algerian Coffee Stores in Soho's Old Compton Street has been kick-starting my day for decades.
    A year later and I drink just as much decaff coffee as the real stuff that I used to drink and instead of Mocha Parfait drink Aldi's ground decaff by the bucket-load.
    I don't miss the instant hit and I certainly don't miss the palpitations.
    Having said that I simply don't see the point in non-alcoholic beer.I drink booze to get a hit not to quench my thirst.
    My doc keeps telling me to give up the booze too but as I meet him virtually every day in the pub it's rather easy for me to tell him to fuck off.
    As you were.

  10. If it wasn't about the taste, I wouldn't drink at all. I'm sure it can't be rare that 90% of the time I visit the pub, I'm in my car. There is only one pub within walking distance of my house, and seeing as its not in walking distance of any of my mate's houses, its something of an irrelevance. So unless I can bribe my missus into dropping me off and then picking me up again (unlikely), I'm having 2 pints of a sub 4% beer and that's your lot.

    Wouldn't it be great if there were more properly low alcohol beers - 1-2% - that I could drink all evening - but that still tasted as good as regular beer.


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