“Tastes all right to me”

I don’t know much about real ale. (I do know what I like, though.) I’ll be more specific: I don’t know much about bad real ale: beer that’s not fit to serve any more, or wasn’t fit to go in the cask in the first place. I don’t know much about condition, in a word. I know when I think a beer’s off – and I’m arrogant enough to think that (a) I’m going to be right most of the time, and hence (b) bar staff should take my word for it (instead of doing that infuriating thing of looking at you as if you’re mad, then replacing the pint as if they’re doing you a personal favour). But I don’t know much about how and why a beer goes off, apart from a general sense that if you leave the last couple of pints sitting at the bottom of a cask they’re likely to go sour. When a beer is overpoweringly bitter – really, really bitter; KölschJever-like levels of bitterness – is that something going wrong, or is it just a really bitter beer? When a beer tastes of gravy, what’s that about? (Sorry, I know that’s not a literal description, but it’s the only way I can think of to describe the flavour I’ve got in mind. An odd kind of greasy quality, with a definite hint of saltiness.)

Sometimes detailed tasting notes seem called for. Take, for example, the Saddleworth Shaftbender I tried at the National Winter Ales Festival. On the first mouthful I thought it was a sour-tasting beer; by the end of the second mouthful the sourness had become really obtrusive, and I’d come to the conclusion it was off. I told the volunteer who’d served me about it; she fetched someone senior, who took a swill of it and said “Yes, it is a bit flat.” (It was no flatter than some of the other beers I’d had that evening.) I still wonder vaguely whether it was off or not.

Or take the Thirsty Moon I had the other week. I used to see Thirsty Moon a lot at the Crescent in Salford, where I went a lot about ten years ago, and it was one of my very favourite beers – a light, easy-drinking bitter with a definite hop character and a surprisingly full malty body, and generally very nice indeed. This time round I was surprised to find a real sourness in there – a strident acidic layer of flavour sitting over the top of the others, not unlike citric acid. (The body itself wasn’t sour, but there was this extra sour element in the mix.) Was it a duff batch or a bad cask, or was it meant to taste like that? (Maybe the recipe’s changed over the years – it has been a while, and there are all these new hops on the scene.)

Take, lastly, the Castle Rock Merlin porter I had on stillage the other day. A very nice half (it was early in the day) with a rich jumble of flavours and a quite pleasant brashness, a quality that beers on stillage often seem to have – probably just because they’ve had less time to sit in the cask rather than because of the method of dispense. But what was that tannic, metallic note, almost a buzzing on the tip of my tongue? Was there something wrong, or was it just a beer with a metallic, tannic note?

While I’m on the subject, what’s this I keep hearing about bottled beer in clear glass being doomed to get ‘light-struck’ and end up ‘skunked’? I haven’t looked at Shepherd Neame the same way since I started reading TBN’s reviews. I’ve had bottled beers that were flat and sour – which presumably was the result of the same kind of problem that makes cask beer go flat and sour – but never noticed a particular kind of bottled-beer ‘offness’, even in clear-glass bottled supermarket beers. (I remember thinking my last Gentleman Jack wasn’t terribly nice – it tasted a bit coarse and thrown-together – but I did think that was what it was meant to be like.)

So, has anyone got a handy listing of common ways for cask beer to taste wrong? And has anyone else had beer that tasted of gravy?

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15 Comments

  1. Posted 10 March, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Permalink | Reply

    When a beer is overpoweringly bitter – really, really bitter; Kölsch-like levels of bitterness – is that something going wrong, or is it just a really bitter beer?

    Umm. “Kölsch-like levels of bitterness”? Is this a serious comment? A lot of this post has just flown over my head.

    • Phil
      Posted 11 March, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink | Reply

      What can I say – I had a bottle of Kölsch once, found it very nearly undrinkably bitter and never wanted to try another. Maybe my tongue needs retuning.

      • Posted 11 March, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        Which Kölsch was it? Are you sure it wasn’t Jever Pilsener?

      • Phil
        Posted 11 March, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        Bollocks. Update applied.

        But how did you *know*?

      • Posted 11 March, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

        I’m just an annoying smart-arse.

  2. Posted 11 March, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink | Reply

    The most common faults I encounter in cask beer:

    1. Underconditioned: it’s been allowed to go flat before serving, or has been on sale too long and has gone flat. This is made worse if the pub then tries to disguise the flatness by putting the beer through a tight sparkler.
    2. Flabbiness – the odd sort of bland creaminess you get in beer that’s under-hopped.
    3. Crystal malt
    4. Oxo cubes flavour, don’t know what causes this
    5. Vinegariness, particularly irritating when it’s just sour enough to be noticeable but not enough to take the pint back.

    • Posted 11 March, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Barm – 4. Dead yeast.

      • Posted 11 March, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

        Duh! Marmite, of course.

      • Posted 11 March, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

        Is that going to be what was going on in my gravy-flavoured beers? I remember being particularly struck by the gravy effect at a small and rather amateurish beer festival I went to a few years ago – everything I tried seemed to have spoiled in the same way.

  3. Posted 11 March, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink | Reply

    re: gentleman jack – it is a strange one i agree, i wasn’t sure what to make of it either

  4. Posted 11 March, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Permalink | Reply

    And has anyone else had beer that tasted of gravy?

    Yes. Brew Dog Alpha Dog.

    • Posted 11 March, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink | Reply

      5am Saint is the most gravyish to me, but I get it in the new version Punk IPA too.

  5. Posted 11 March, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Permalink | Reply

    PS. Glad the Koelsch mystery has been solved.

  6. Gav
    Posted 12 March, 2011 at 1:58 am | Permalink | Reply

    I often detect a hint of dirty mop in Caledonian 80/- used to get it in McEwans 80/- as well.

    What would cause a stale spice taste in a beer?

  7. Posted 12 March, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink | Reply

    It is nice to be able to say exactly what is wrong with a beer. You can learn all about the horrors of light strike in the safety of your own home, as I explained in this post.

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