Saturday, 29 October 2016

Accessible or appetising?

A claim made more than once by egregious blogtroll “py” is that heavily-hopped New World-style IPAs are much more “accessible” than conventional British bitters. On the face of it, this seems an absurd proposition, as surely the blander a beer is, and the more it lacks strong, distinctive flavours, the more accessible it becomes.

In these terms, the ultimate entry-level beer must be a very light, bland lager such as Bud Light. There may not be much to appeal to the tastebuds, but there’s nothing to offend them either. While beers such as Doom Bar and Greene King IPA are often dismissed as bland, I’d say all ales have a slightly “rough” or “dirty” edge to them, which appeals to many, but stands in contrast to the cleanness of lagers. This is what in the past led to some fastidious people saying that they just didn’t like the taste of beer.

However, as explained in this blogpost by Boak & Bailey, there is a different way of looking at it. The sheer absence of offputting flavours may seem to some an absence of anything to actually appeal to the tastebuds. A beer may not be actively unpleasant, but on the other hand may have nothing to recommend it, and thus not appeal to people seeking distinctive, characterful flavours.

I said in the comments:

I’ve never got this about heavily-hopped IPAs being “accessible”. To my mind, it’s like putting forward Laphroaig as an “entry-level” whisky.
To which someone replied:
Funnily enough when I read your comment I was already planning to post exactly that: that for some people Laphroaig really is an entry level whisky.

My sister for one. She had tried other whiskies and not liked them much. Not hated them, but not liked them either and couldn’t see any reason to drink them when there are so many other drinks to choose them. And then she had a taste of Laphroaig and went wow! and has never looked back. Now she also appreciates more subtle whiskies, although I think Islay ones are still her favourites.

The point is, you can’t assume that blander things are more accessible. Sometimes a strong and/or unusual flavour can get people interested.

So, on those terms, it’s reasonable enough to argue that it’s powerful flavours that can get some people to understand the appeal of beer, or whisky, whereas more muted ones have passed them by. It’s like saying “I never got cheese until I tried a really ripe Stilton”. But it’s an entirely different kind of attraction from being unchallenging or easy-drinking, and the two shouldn’t be conflated.

And I still cannot understand how some people can claim that enamel-stripping IPAs with massive IBUs are actually sweet to the palate. But they do.


  1. Likely the relatively high use of crystal malt and strength in alcohol gives that touch of sweetness. It can balance and even overcome high alpha acid in my experience.

  2. There's quite a few folks report alcohol tasting sweet AND bitter. At the same time, there's a lot of (genetic) variation in bitterness tasting. So I'm guessing "some people" are just different. It'd be a dull world if we were all the same.

  3. People have such different tastes it's easy to view everything through the prism of your own situation and slip into generalisations. The wife of a friend of mine was a committed Stella drinker when they met and she got into beer via stouts and porters (and is now an extreme hop head).

    By the way, the enamel-stripping IPAs with a huge IBU count really can have an initial sweetness I have found - and then the bitterness kicks in at the back.

  4. I think Py is correct on this one. I relate this to the Thai and Mexican food challenge. Who can eat the hottest dish? Very simple without really having to taste subtle differences in the food. Most of the American IPA craze is driven by the "how hoppy can I take it mentality?" It isn't really a difficult thing to jump into. I would not use the word accessible though. I would use easier. Hop bombs allow people to engage with beer since the taste is quite obvious. Discerning what is different between bitters is a much more challenging drinking experience. I think many hopheads would say Doom and Pedigree taste the "same." They don't and the differences require much more effort to explain. It isn't as simple as saying that's Simcoe and that is Cascade. The hop distinction makes for an easy entry point.

  5. The basic point is that a lot of hoppy IPAs taste like alcoholic Um Bongo, while something like Pedigree (to take Marstons' own tasting notes) tastes "dry, biscuit, malt, spicy, hoppy". I don't see why it's implausible that someone who hasn't spent umpteen years drinking bitter might find the former more familiar and easier to get a handle on.

    The comparisons to, say, Laphroig or Stilton don't really hold up, because the strong tropical and citrus flavours of hoppy IPAs are fairly familiar things that most people are going to be used to finding in a drinks, if not specifically in beer, whereas the smokiness of Laphroig or the pungency of Stilton are actually pretty weird and difficult in themselves.


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