It’s difficult to be precise on the facts on this, but according to some research* I read, roughly half of beer drinkers like the taste of sunstrike in beer. I’m in the other 50%. In fact, famously I was once described by someone as being the most attuned person to the smell of horse blankets, wet dogs, damp cardboard and skunkiness. I cannot attest to the accuracy of this statement but I chose to take it as a positive affirmation of my razor sharp senses in relation to beer. *cough cough*.
Let’s deal with these two things in order. First, ‘sunstrike’ or ‘sunstruck’. It would be easy to get technical, and thereby get it wrong, as I am no expert, but in essence, hops contain compounds, humoloids, humolones….something like that, which react with ultraviolet light. Beer that is unprotected – which is at least the third of beer in the UK – all that is sold in clear or glass bottles – can succumb to the effect very quickly**. Put it out on shelf, leave it in the front of a fridge, put it down on the table outside whilst you enjoy your barbecue…. in no time at all, the character of the beer changes. I say the character of the beer – for me, it’s the aroma that hits me between the eyes, but there’s no doubt that it impacts the taste of the beer too***.
So secondly, to those attributes: aroma and taste. It’s most definitely impacted by UV. The reason, allegedly, that many drinkers like the taste is because they associate it with beers they have had on holiday…Spanish beer often gets the finger levelled at it here, ‘It’s like that San Miguel we had in Magaluf’. i.e. beer that has been enjoyed in searing temperatures, blinding light in the middle of the day – and probably not out of a can (plus when you are relaxed and on holiday – that’s a totally different subject). I shot an advert in Barcelona once, and I remember enjoying a beautiful glass of San Miguel in a bar just off La Ramblas…that was fantastic, so personally it doesn’t compute, but I get the logic. Frankly, as soon as I crank off the crown, if the beer is sunstruck I can tell.
It’s that often quoted aroma – skunk – that is the giveaway.
Yes, skunk. I recognise it as skunk because we used to keep a domesticated one. It was ever so handy around the house. With its black and white stripes it was great at bossing the magpies out of the back garden and its hair was so long, fine and luxuriously silky, it made an ideal shoe polishing accessory. Brought up a lovely sheen it did. And the kids just adored taking it for long walks across the fields; they were never bothered by dog owners.
Seriously, how can I describe this fetid, accrid pong as ‘skunky’ when it has no meaning for me? It must have for Americans who coined it, but for me, nothing. I therefore set about the challenge of finding out an equivalent smell; a description that has validity to us, here, in these sceptred Skunkless Isles.
To our friend, the skunk, or polecat then. I never realised that his spray is released from two glands either side of his anus. Nice. Or that he is unnervingly accurate at ranges of up to 5 metres. Move over, Phil ‘The Power’, you may hit the double tops, but skunky here has a double bottom. And that they only spray when they feel threatened. No way. Yet everyone struggles, including Americans it seems, with describing what ‘skunky’ actually is. Burnt rubber? In small quantities apparently. Roast garlic? That sounds ok. Ammonia like? Suitably nasty, but if that was it, surely you’d describe the smell as ‘ammonia’. Rotten eggs? Somehow it doesn’t capture how awful the smell is. By all accounts, skunks are close relations to weasels and ferrets, so perhaps I need to tap up some of my Lancastrian mates to see if they can help. Seek in the trousers of wisdom my friend, and you shalt find.
I have not yet conducted primary research. The next time I go to Chester Zoo, if you see someone poking around the back end of the animals in the ‘Mephitids’ section, ‘tis I. If you see someone being carted off to Chester Magistrates Court, ‘t’will be me. Or scrubbing themselves down with Carbolic Soap for a week. Yup, me too.
Ultimately I suppose, who cares? Apart from lexicological colonialism by the Americans (get there first and you get to keep the descriptions), it doesn’t really matter. Except, when I try and tell my wife that her beer is off, and have to use the word ‘skunky’. She just shoots me that, “Don’t patronise me, you tosser” look and stalks off. No, we need language that we all understand to describe great flavours and off flavours.
“Wet stoat” it is then.
Now, I’m just off to speak to The Beer Academy. They need to reprint their flavour wheels…
**As part of the above project, freshly packaged beer in green bottles was left on a window sill for 30 minutes. When it was opened, it was already ‘off’.
***Brewers can do a few things to prevent sunstrike. The most common thing is only sell your beer on draught or cans, or not package beer in anything but dark brown bottles. But you know, this is not that practical and research tells us that consumers prefer green or clear glass. The other thing you can do is brew with isohumolone free hops – chemically altered hops that have the specific compounds removed – Miller Genuine Draft is a good example, so too Sol. Clever science, but to my taste, the beers take on a soapy mouthfeel and begin to taste very similar.. I’d rather run the gauntlet myself.
© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012