There’s an entry in The Guinness Book of Guinness, the volume of reminiscences produced in 1985 to mark the 50th anniversary of the building of the Park Royal brewery in London, which talks about the daily tastings of bottled Guinness undertaken by senior staff in the Park Royal sample room. Guinness being the sort of company that it was, bureaucratic, very strongly process-driven, all the tasters’ individual results were logged and compared, so the stats department could tell who were the most reliable. Edward Guinness, whose branch of the clan were actually from the non-brewing side, but who joined the company anyway in 1945, was “i/c sample room” in the late 1940s, and records:
… my worst taster by a wide margin was JF Brown, who upset every graph, and I had to be tactful in finally suggesting to him that he might forgo the privilege …
As John Brown was then head of raw materials, and went on to be Head Brewer at the Guinness brewery in Dublin, it is understandable Edward Guinness felt he had to be careful about telling the poor fellow he couldn’t taste his way out of a hop-sack …
I’ve got reasonable faith in my own tastebuds: I’ve raved over new beers, such as Little Creatures that others have later raved over too, and I’ve dissed beers, like Jupiler that most others seem to compare to weak stale dishwater too. But there are a couple of brews that turn up on “beers to try before you croak” lists that I fail to get at all, and I don’t know why everybody else is out of step except me.
One is Robinson’s Old Tom, a survivor from the 19th century, when a number of brewers in the North of England, particularly Yorkshire, brewed strong dark ales under the Old Tom name. It may have taken its name from Old Tom gin, a sweeter style of spirit than London dry gin., or it may just be part of the generic naming of strong aged beers as “Old Whatever”.
Robinson’s, anyway, a dark-oak 8.5 per cent ABV brew, is now about the last Old Tom still brewed, and its reviews are excellent. The World’s Top Writer On Beer™ says of it:
… a huge roundness of flavours, suggestions of cherry brandy, and a distinct dryness in the finish
while Britain’s Leading Beer Writer™ says
… a ripe vine fruits aroma with a delicious hint of chocolate … port wine … long and complex finish … a solid underpinning of bitter hops
and I say: “Not much of a nose, tastes more of molasses than anything else, very, very short aftertaste, too sweet and sticky, not a lot of hop character, and a whiff of something unpleasantly estery in there – I’ve tasted worse attempts at dark barley wines, but it’s a very ‘so what?’ beer.”
I find the same gulf between my views and others over Greene King Strong Suffolk. I really want to like this beer: it’s unique, as far as I know, in Britain for still being made from a blend of aged strong ale, Old 5X, a 12 per cent ABV brew kept in lidded wooden vats topped with Suffolk marl for two years, and a younger beer, BPA, blended together to make a 6 per cent ABV cocktail. I’ve seen the new vat they built at Bury St Edmunds to expand production of the 5X, and tasted 5X from the cask. Again better-selling beer writers than me love it: BLBW™ says:
“… a spicy, oaky, sherry wine intensity … big and complex …
while TWTWOB™ says:
deserves to be much better known … iron-tasting, sappy, peppery and winey
but I think it’s unpleasantly thin for its strength, with a not-very-interesting flavour of hopped toffees, very little length of taste, little condition little or no nose, slightly appley but fundamentally another “so what?” brew. So who’s out of step – me or them?