In praise of blandness

Credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

There is too much choice. We are confronted with a dizzying array of options for the simplest commodities. Producers tweak their products to give them the edge over their rivals, and we swallow the most preposterous combinations of styles, flavours and appearances, all in the name of variety. They put caffeine in shampoo, Lycra in socks and sea salt in chocolate, and they make bicycle frames out of bamboo. But what, I ask, was wrong with the originals? Were our lives incomplete when the salt in our crisps did not come from Anglesey? Was there great danger that people would stop drinking cider if they didn’t add fruits of the forest?

Take alcohol as an example of this unnecessary complication. If I go into any pub in my city I will probably have to scan a blackboard full of poetical descriptions of their craft beer selection, or an array of stylised cardboard signs attached to the pumps, each one designed to distract the eye from the card on either side. I would prefer to see generic signs that say “beer”, “lager”, “cider”, etc, rather than to have to choose between “Hobgoblin’s Fancy” and “Obergrupenfuhrerstein”.

Most new drinks promoted by their slick, beautiful-lifestyle-suggesting TV adverts are a triumph of marketing and gullibility. If we are taken in by the dreams they are peddling, we are simply playing into their hands. Just because our new drink of choice has been magically enhanced with a twist of lemon (what is a Radler1 anyway?), the perfectly ordinary friends we usually spend the evening with will probably not feel obliged to dance provocatively on tables. Nor will replacing our erstwhile beer of choice with one that comes in a different coloured bottle improve our gambling ability or goal-scoring record on a Sunday morning.

So I say we should all settle for what we like and stick with it for as long as possible, until the marketeers reinvent it for the next crop of over-eighteens with a hint of shrubbery or fruit and thereby render it unpalatable.

If a beer or cider is cloudy, I think it has something to hide. My first thought would be that something has gone wrong with the pumping mechanism. If a drink has a stick in it, then it’s probably for swilling some unspeakable, possibly unpronounceable concoction around, thereby rendering it undrinkable, when it would have remained harmless if it had been allowed to settle as sediment at the bottom of the glass. I say transparency is the way forward. Keep it simple with no bells and whistles, no disguises or distractions. An “ice-cold” version of our favourite beer adds nothing in a cold climate such as ours. If I wanted ice cold, I would buy a lolly. Cask-conditioned, cold-filtered, extra cold, export, these are all terms to pull the wool over our eyes.

Descriptions of beer have borrowed from the world of wine in recent years. A beer with “notes” is not music to my ears. Similarly, fruit has no place in beer. A hop is a hop, whatever its geographical origin. The more you shove in, the nastier the beer tastes in my experience. So why would anyone in their right mind blend a bitter taste into a drink that is supposed to give pleasure? I just about get that wine can taste of blackberry or peach, as it did at least start out in fruit form. But beer is from grain.

Michael Gove said recently that we don’t want experts, but I disagree—and look what happened to him anyway. The large-scale brewers have taken decades or even hundreds of years of experimentation to refine their flavours. Their beers may not be flamboyant, quirky and fashionable, but the recipes have been handed down through the generations and have universal appeal. Their continued success is no accident, and I would like to think they won’t have been replaced by a fancy-titled usurper the next time I visit a favoured hostelry. Moreover, my hangover will be similarly dependable, with the same duration and intensity as on all those previous occasions. What we don’t need is young amateurs with unfeasibly large beards brewing up a flimsy and fleeting sort of ‘beerexit’ in their attempts to elbow out what is safe, trustworthy and familiar.

So when you’re next in a pub or cocktail bar, ask them which beer is the blandest or which cocktail is the quickest to make. For the staff it’s an easier, less subjective question than which is the best. And it’s irritating to see them demean themselves by having to clap plants in their hands or reach for a tea strainer. Save them the trouble of delicately placing that little twisty bit of orange peel or sprig of foliage by snatching the glass away when the alcohol has gone in. The punters in the queue behind will thank you for returning a part of their life to them that might have been lost to that pointless ritual.

Faced with a twenty-page cocktail menu I choose not to choose. Give me the second cheapest wine on the wine list (I’m no skinflint). I’ll order the beer without the ice-encrusted pump handle. The bottle should not be served in a bag, the beer glass should be beer-glass shaped. Put a handle on it if you must, but I will drink from the opposite side. Above all, don’t be influenced by these Alderman Lushington luminaries, who entice you with their honeyed words. They overdo, they embellish and celebrate the rare, the complicated and the quirky. They champion the adulterated and the little known. They resurrect the justifiably forgotten.

It’s time we, the majority, the lovers of the ordinary, the standard, the original, had our say. We are vanilla, we are ready-salted, with no more than 4.3% alcohol content and no cherry on top. We know what we like, so we don’t experiment. We don’t enthuse and we don’t infuse. So what if nothing excites us, we can’t be disappointed either. The point is, ladies and gentleman, that bland—for lack of a better word—is good. Bland is right. Bland works. Bland clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

Beer words to look out for

  • best
  • bitter
  • pride (as in London)
  • ale
  • session
  • mild
  • brown

Beer words to avoid

  • golden
  • blond
  • punk
  • ruby
  • amber
  • saison
  • American

Chris Benson (Bristol, September 2016)

chris-benson-bioChris works terrifically hard at his publishing job in the English city of Bristol. He lives in quiet obscurity with no cats. He also rides a bicycle quite regularly and plays a lot of sport, often with a hangover and sometimes gently under the influence.



1. Editor’s note: a Radler is a combination of beer and fruit juice or (and) soda, cf. shandy and shandygaff.