I try not to drink bad beer: it’s a personal policy, and generally it serves me well. Sometimes, though, you’re in a bar far from home, or at a party thrown by people you don’t know very well, and there’s nothing in sight but a dubious-looking keg fount, or a pile of cans. The triumph of hope over experience means that, generally in these circumstances, my desire for a beer, any beer, leads me to say: “Oh, go on then.” Two minutes later, I’m thinking, once again, how much I want to smack very hard the grinning fool who first smugly coined that idiot’s motto: “There are no bad beers, it’s just that some are better than others.” There are plenty of bad beers, and many are far worse than you’d believe possible.
Of course, some bad beers are born of irretrievably bad ideas. The 1990s was full of muck like Chili Beer from Garcia Brewing in New Mexico. I reviewed this for a short-lived beer magazine called The Taste, and I knew it was going to be vile as soon as I saw the whole chili in the bottle. The best bit was pouring almost all of it down the sink. Another 1990s American abomination was Jetts Lime Clear Beer. Using filtering technology to remove the molecules that give beer its colour seems entirely pointless anyway. Adding lime flavouring meant Jetts Lime Clear Beer was disgusting, as well as dumb. The aroma was like soapy drains, and it actually fizzed noisily in the glass, something no beer I have ever tried has done before or since. That was another one down the sink.
Those, however, were stupid beers. The worst kind of bad beer is when a skilled brewer delivers something that is meant to be mainstream, but is actually muck. This, then, is Cornell’s Hall of Shame: five beers made from hops, malt and yeast that – perhaps because of poor brewing, often because of poor handling – were unfinishably awful.
John Smith’s Extra Smooth
I was drinking in a hotel in the Middle East, I was bored with bottled lager, and I thought: “It can’t be THAT bad, can it?” Dear god, reader, it was: I couldn’t credit how terrible this tasted. It seemed to have no association with the raw materials of beer at all: like foaming brown sick. Maybe on the way from the UK the kegs had sat for too long on a hot quayside: I doubt the beer lines in the hotel bar had been cleaned in ten years. But it certainly was impossible to finish. I had just two mouthfuls: one to alarm and dismay, the second only because it seemed unbelievable that something as bad as the initial swallow suggested could actually be still on sale, and I needed to confirm its awfulness.
There appears to be a growing movement to promote cans as the answer to a craft brewer’s quality problems. VB, however, is the riposte to those who declare that beer is much safer inside a tin than in a glass bottle. This was one of those “at a party, nothing else to drink” beers: VB, or Victoria Bitter (“bitter” in the Australian sense of being darker than a “lager”) is hugely popular among Australians. I was astonished that every can I opened tasted cardboardy, smelled skunky and was utterly undrinkable; problems that, had this been in bottles, I’d have put down to the beer being light-struck and oxygenated. The fans of cans, however, will insist that such errors do not occur in canned beer. Think again, people. Once more, I suspect that, on its way from Australia, the pallet of VB had spent too long in the heat, maybe in an uncooled shipping container. Whatever the reason, I moved to white wine: don’t like drinking wine at parties, I find if I don’t pay attention I neck it like beer and then have to be led to a quiet room away from the noise to lie down.
Gibbs Mew keg bitter
The West of England has seen its family brewers hammered over the past 30 years, and I was very sorry to see companies such as Ushers, Devenish and Eldridge Pope vanish from the scene. Gibbs Mew of Salisbury, however, not so much. It had been one of the first family brewers to pursue an all-keg policy for its draught beer, it was one of the last to bring cask beer back, and I never rated its cask brews highly. Late one weekend a few years before Gibbs Mew finally closed its brewery in 1997, however, I was driving back from Devon to Hertfordshire down the A303, and somewhere around 9pm and Wylie the need for an ale became overwhelming. Not having a beer guide on me, I thought: “Well, surely any Gibbs pub will now have cask,” and pulled off towards Salisbury. The first Gibbs Mew tied house I reached looked lively, the bar was full – but no handpumps. I really didn’t want to go driving from pub to pub, the evening was dying, so I thought: “WTF, I’ll have a pint of keg.” When you’re in a bar and you’re handed vile beer, the second thought (after “yuck!”) is: “Has nobody else in here realised how awful this is? Why do other people appear to be happily drinking hideous muck?” This is not “bland mainstream” beer with not very much going for it, this is actually beer so bad that one sip is reason enough never to come back to that pub – possibly that county – ever again.
Watney’s Star Light
In the early 1970s, as a nignorant long-haired student ‘ippy, I knew very little about beer. I DID know that the beers I was drinking in pubs in and around Brighton tasted worse, often much worse, than the beers I was drinking in the bars on campus. Indeed, there was one pub in Hove, where I would go with mates to play darts, where the bitter was so awful that eventually I stopped drinking it, and would have Guinness instead, even though that was considerably more expensive (As a student, of course, cheap was not just cheerful but essential: my entire weekly budget was only £5, about £40 today.) Eventually I worked out, as my knowledge about beer grew, that the pubs in Brighton and Hove had mostly been serving as their cheapest “student friendly” brew Watney’s keg Star Light, because Watney’s had acquired the Brighton brewer, Tamplin’s, dumped Tamplin’s brands and rammed its own nationally-advertised beers into Tamplin’s tied houses. Out on campus, however, we were drinking Newcastle Exhibition: still a keg beer, still weak as nun’s piss, but actually delivering at least some of the flavours of beer – rather than the flavours of pipi des nonnes. What was wrong with Star Light wasn’t the usual complaints heard about keg beer today, that it was fizzy or lacked depth and character: its problem was that it tasted actively unpleasant, like a really badly made cup of cold tea. But Watney’s didn’t care, because the tied house system meant its publicans and customers had no choice except to take what Watney’s made. Scottish & Newcastle, however, makers of Newcastle Exhibition, were fighting for business in the free trade: if they delivered really crap beer, the bar owner, not being tied, could and would go elsewhere for supplies.
This is unfair, because Courage Best, especially from the former Bristol brewery, which this was, could be a fine beer on its day. But not this particular sunny day out in Devon with my beer-loving then girlfriend, her neurotic gay brother and her mother (who always reminded me of Richard Wattis – I could never say so then, obviously, but Mrs Roberts must now be long-dead, and anyway that girlfriend later dumped me in an especially brutal, selfish and hurtful way, so feck her) in a late Victorian village inn somewhere out towards Tiverton that I hadn’t been to before. The pair of pints I bought my girlfriend and me was about the worst-handled cask beer I have ever returned to the bar. It was so egregiously bad I remember it decades on: two glasses of liquid butterscotch. Whether it had been sent out too early from the brewery, or whether it had just not been given enough time in the pub cellar, I don’t know. The landlady grudgingly swapped the butterscotch for a couple of pints of bitter, and the gay brother and Richard Wattis sat looking embarrassed at the fuss while the girlfriend and I finished our beers. The sole local in the pub, a grey-haired plump man in his late 50s on a stool at the bar, wearing a tweed jacket and farmer’s trousers and clearly in a snit that strangers had dared to express criticism, told the landlady every two minutes as he drank his own beer: “Lovely pint tonight, Betty.” Prat.
There WAS another appallingly undrinkable pint I still remember, served in a pub in Ealing, West London, after a week of particularly hot weather in the early 1990s. Sarson’s would have been thrilled to sell it for sprinkling on chips. But I can’t remember what the beer was, and the state it was in certainly wasn’t the brewer’s fault. It brought the most spontaneously honest reaction from any pub person I have ever seen: as I handed the glass back and suggested the beer in it was perhaps past its best, the barman passed the beer on to the manageress, who said, as she raised the glass to her mouth to take a swig herself: “Well, nobody else has combleaugh!” Fortunately I was able to channel Buster Keaton and show no reaction, rather than point, jeer and laugh at the manageress’s expression after she had swallowed neat acetic acid from her own cellars. Sometimes karma is its own reward.