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?