It is a law of marketing that the more self- evidently impossible the challenge, the greater will be the determination to rise to it. The impact may be negligible, the result nugatory, the reward small, but the pleasure to be derived from trying is infinite.
And so I tip my hat to the anonymous hero or heroine (my God, there may have been a whole team of them!) who compiled the tasting notes for the Wetherspoons pub chain’s menu of speciality bottled beers.
Their task was impossible because no one can describe a taste without reference to another taste. The result is invariably risible or pretentious, or both. Wine enthusiasts, or oenophiles – a word that demands to be spoken with the little finger raised – have learned to live with the mockery that their vocabulary provokes. But despite the efforts of organisations such as the Campaign for Real Ale, beer-drinking has remained a pleasure to be indulged rather than described, and such ridicule as attaches to it is reserved for the bearded and sandalled types whose arrival every publican dreads.
Beer drinking, unlike wine imbibing, has never enjoyed respectability. Not only is beer by tradition the tipple of the working man, it is also associated with excess and bawdiness. Or at any rate it is in this country. The Germans, Dutch, Belgians and French may brew excellent beers, but by laying undue stress on quality of ingredients, taste and purity, they are missing the point, which is to pour enough down the throat to compel its speedy return by the same route, while allowing sufficient time for a punch-up.
In the British tradition, beer and bad behaviour are inseparably yoked. It is one of the many things that distinguishes us from our continental counterparts, to the dismay of Europhiles who would have us become more like them. In Germany and France, beer is drunk in the peculiar (to us) belief that it is a form of refreshment capable of slaking a thirst and lifting the spirits and, those benefits bestowed, to be put aside until the next time.
For centuries we have taken a different, more robust view, to the benefit of numerous glaziers and to the consternation of many a Justice of the Peace. True, there was a brief post-war interlude when, exhausted by conflict and afflicted by austerity, the British pub became a civilised refuge. But, by the late Sixties, the greed of the brewers, the inventiveness of the marketing profession and the advent of affluence reunited the British beer drinker with his historic role as intemperate lout.
So relentless and unstoppable has been the rise in beer drinking that there is no town or city in the land whose residents fail to think themselves accursed not to be abed when the pubs and bars disgorge their patrons.
The Government’s answer, conceived with an irrefutable logic, is to abandon closing time altogether. Given sufficient time – and 24 hours a day should prove ample – British drinkers, it is argued, will learn to be more like their effete continental cousins.
Ever in the vanguard, JD Wetherspoon is laying the ground for the impending rise of civilised, epicurean beer drinkers, hence the tasting notes.
Here is a flavour of their contents: “Leffe Blonde. Belgium. This beer has a bubbly, but short-lived head. There is also toffee in the aroma, mixed with the fruity undertones of apples, sharp lemon, almond and vanilla. This is a very pleasant, complex and well-rounded beer. On the palate, it has quite a lively fizz, with a spicy hop flavour and a little kick in the tail.”
You think I jest? Well, here’s another: “Erdinger. Bavaria. Very pale and pours with the characteristic high-rise, fine-bubbled long-lasting head. The nose has grassy, hay-like hops, leading to a bubblegum flavour, which is distinctive on the tongue – it is lively and bitter, but refreshing at the same time. Spicy and fruity flavours are present, but subtle. A pleasant and refreshing beer.”
To gauge the extent of the social revolution this presupposes, one has only to imagine two cloth-capped beer drinkers of yore in the snug of the Dun Cow.
“Nice drop tonight,” says one, wiping the froth from his upper lip with the back of his hand.
“Ay,” says the other. “Toffee in the aroma, fruity undertones of apples, almond and vanilla. A hint of burnt capsicum and maybe, just maybe, a soupÃ§on of bubblegum. Tutti-frutti, if I’m not mistaken.”
“No,” says the first. “If you will forgive me for taking issue on a small point, you have overlooked the nose, which, if I’m not mistaken, is grassy and hay-like with a dash of unmown meadow. With sheep.”
“Sheep?” the retort. “Don’t be bloody daft.”
“Who are you calling daft, you bottle-nosed old fart?”
“You, you pasty-faced prat.”
“Do you want to repeat that outside?”
“Try and stop me.”
Exeunt: noises off. Shouting, splitting timber, tinkling glass. Ambulance siren.
The deeply ingrained customs of centuries cannot be swept aside with a stroke of the marketer’s pen, however deftly flourished. And so, while saluting the authors of JD Wetherspoon’s notes and trusting they had fun compiling them, I fear the nearest the average British lager drinker will get to discernment and taste is deciding which of his adversary’s ears to bite off first.