Detail from old beer label: BITTER ALE.

A bit of discussion broke out in the comments on Monday’s post about what is or is not ‘accessible’ beer.

When we were first getting into beer as young twenty-somethings it was via Greene King IPA, Leffe, Erdinger and Hoegaarden, all of which are considered bland by modern standards. For us, they were just stimulating enough without being scary. (We still like Hoegaarden, the others less so.) In our experience, then, there is definitely something in the idea of so-called gateway beers.

But we also know people who didn’t show any interest in beer until they’d tried a really hoppy IPA. In their own way, a different way, they are gateway beers too: as well as being extravagant and flowery, they are often also on the sweet side, whatever the raw IBU data might suggest. Balanced, if you like, only with lots on both sides of the scale. If your palate is used to cocktails, spirits, wine, cider, coffee or other strongly-flavoured drinks, they don’t necessarily seem overly intense or alcoholic, while at the same time challenging ideas of what beer has to be.

(Thinner session-strength beers with lots of hops, on the other hand, can be a challenge, with little body or sweetness to protect the tastebuds from sheer sap-sucking dryness — it took us a while to get used to pale’n’hoppy, which is now pretty much our favourite thing in the world.)

When people tell you they don’t like beer, what reasons do they give? We tend to hear:

  1. ‘It’s too bitter!’ Even of quite sweet beers, so we’re not always sure it’s actually bitterness they mean. ‘Brownness’, maybe? Or perhaps just a general nasty staleness.
  2. ‘It’s too much — I get bloated and sleepy.’ A matter of volume. People still don’t feel comfortable ordering halves and, when they do, they’re often poorly presented. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, people also seem to find fizzier beers less soporific, and more refreshing.
  3. ‘I’m just not a beer person’, or variations thereon. If you’re trying to portray a glamorous riviera lifestyle on Instagram or Facebook, beer doesn’t seem to quite cut it.

So accessible beer, for many people, might be relatively low in (perceived) bitterness, possibly served in smaller measures, and attractively presented (glassware or packaging). And for others who recoil at ‘fanciness’ it might mean a pint of Doom Bar, which we find utterly boring, but which it turns out has a lot of very sincere, even evangelistic fans.

Which explains a lot about supermarkets and multi-nationals are taking these days — not, perhaps, a race to the bottom but a race for the accessible end of the market.

13 Comments

  1. @sirgawain82

    Ha i had to chuckle at #3 very much a sign of our times. Any maybe why i have to wait in some bars for a silly amount of time while staff hand out half a dozen gin balloons!
    I myself went strait into drinking lager. Labatts ice if i recall. You can’t even get that any more can you? (I’d give it a go again for a giggle). This is a bit odd given I grew up in west Yorkshire in an area where the Dads still drank bitter, even if it was a modernised pasteurised version. But i never started drinking with my Dad. Nope mine was behind a Kwik Save on some old coal stacks converted into a rugby pitch.
    Moving on eventually i started drinking stuff like Black Sheep bitter partly due to nostalgia for home and also because mainstream lager was becoming increasingly dull and hangover inducing. After that it was onto other stuff from people like Caledonia and Jennings. Stuff as you so well put is “considered bland by modern standards”. I agree with that statement, lots of people are still happy drinking it as well. I myself will occasionally indulge in a Black Sheep which is still quite nice when properly looked after.
    Certainly I’ve tried to put other people on accessible beers at first and it actually did work! A friend of mine who once swore Stella Artois to be the best thing ever now cannot stand the stuff, and it all started with a black sheep bitter at a beer festival at Liverpool cricket club….
    I won’t touch doom bar though (**snigger**)

  2. Beyond flavour, a couple of the other traditional CAMRA attributes of real ale – “It’s not fizzy or over-chilled” – are turnoffs for a lot of people for whom “ice-cold” and “sparkling” are key qualities of alcoholic drinks (lager, cider, prosecco even). This is a big part of success of keg IPAs, IMO. I have friends who generally drank pints of Peroni, San Miguel etc, but now love Punk IPA, Camden Pale, which they see as being like lager (“refreshing”) but with more flavour. They would never consider a pint of cask Jaipur.

  3. 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.
    When I was a kid, pubs and off-licences still returned empty beer bottles in crates to the brewery, and the distinctive smell of stale beer, which you don’t really come across much nowadays, was something that put many, especially women, off drinking beer at all.

  4. Bearded Housewife

    Funny you should mention Laphroaig specifically, as that actually was my gateway whisky! I think there’s a certain type of mindset that’s attracted to more extreme flavours.
    Of course, for me, I was seventeen and it was a fairly transparent affectation; I wanted to be seen to enjoy something that other people couldn’t even smell, but in the process I did end up liking it. Not saying it’s that shallow for everyone, but….

  5. Is accessibility just about taste? Might gateway beers be something a “new entrant” tries without wishing to appear foolish in making their order while at the same time being reassured by the name and producer? Hence going for names you either know or have heard of – Pride, Bombardier, Broadside, GK IPA and the Doom. As opposed to Periwinkle’s Blancmange flavoured brown ale?

  6. There’s something in that.
    Bryan Roth went to the GABF and noticed huge queues for the better-known brands.

  7. One, unintended, outcome of the IPAification of all beer is that there are people out there who might actually like beer, but don’t like IPAs, so they tend not to try something labelled as an IPA. Case in point is a colleague of mine who convinced herself she didn’t like beer at all, and recently discovered the delights of lambic, Berliner Weiss, and other sour beers.
    Now she is trying other non-IPA beers and discovering that she likes stouts and porters too. As she said to me the other day, ‘the way people go on about beer, you’d think IPA was all there was’. A sad indictment of the modern craft beer world.

  8. Curmudgeon:
    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.

  9. The Beer Nut

    ^^^^ This.

  10. Also, they often taste like alcoholic Lilt.

  11. I can understand how someone might think Laphroaig the “acme of whisky”. But to suggest it is easier-drinking or more approachable than, say, Glenfiddich is ridiculous. As you say, she didn’t dislike them, just saw no reason to drink them.

  12. I suppose that one thing about ordinary bitter is that it doesn’t taste massively anything other than beer – people tend to describe it in terms of “malt” and “hops” with maybe the odd hint of nonspecific fruits or caramel. Beers that taste distinctively of mango or chocolate or banana might be easier to get a handle on?
    Actually, I’ve often argued that the supposed accessibility of bitter is down to the fact that a lot of people started drinking when there weren’t many other options, and consequently they had no choice but to acquire the taste for it. Hence they got used to the idea that bitter is what beer tastes like, and now find that anything that doesn’t taste like bitter is strange and an acquired taste, whereas bitter is straightforward and easy drinking. Whereas from a standing start, a Double IPA or Imperial Stout or even a fruity sour like Salty Kiss can actually be easier for some people to “get”. In a slightly less extreme example, I served someone at a beer festival over the weekend who was totally new to beer, and she pulled a face at a good traditional bitter but went away happy with an oatmeal stout.

  13. Battlegarden

    I have a friend who always “hated” beer. By chance she once tried a really sour “craft” Berliner Weisse, and that triggered a sudden interest. Passing through gueuze, kriek et al. she can now appreciate most beer styles, I even had a lager with her recently, which she didn’t spit out. Still very much prefers Cantillon, Boon and Drie Fonteinen though.

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