The absolute worst (or is that best?) thing about words is they have meaning.
Books tell us their purpose. Teachers educate on their place. But really, what words produce for us aren’t just complete sentences. They form subjective emotions.
For me there is one such word that is a villain to vernacular, laughing mischievously at me, just one man unable to combat it alone.
It is unfortunately well liked, often used, and forever relied on, a fly in my pint.
It is “smooth.”
And it needs to go away.
In the pantheon of generic beer descriptions, high above “hoppy” and “malty,” sits “smooth,” appointed monarch by Business Men of Beer, who have presented the term proudly to the beer-loving masses.
It’s a word that reads more as a brainchild of silver-tongued marketers than fully bearded, pot-bellied beer enthusiasts. “Smooth” is a phrase uttered by a cartoonish pitchman or unassuming patrons put on the spot. From them, it’s trickled down into the mouths of far too many beer drinkers who have become reliant on the word to describe just about any – or all – aspects of a beer.
Why are we told that “smooth” is the ultimate experience, the end to our sudsy means?
“Smooth” should be nothing more than a passing term en route to the final destination of some better definition. At the end of the journey, we should find ourselves comforted by a plethora of terms that can flood our sensory memories like “bubblegum,” “cut grass,” “brown bread,” or even “wet blanket.”
My ultimate problem isn’t necessarily with the word itself. After all, “smooth” provides a meaningful way to describe the feel of a beer or any other object.
Rather, it’s the or overuse of “smooth” as a catchall phrase, something that people seem to equate with having the ability to tell the full story of a beer, but really just comes across as an ultra-abbreviated CliffNotes version. More often than not, our brew deserves to be enjoyed and verbalized in all its compositional glory.
Using the description of “smooth” is just a single word, and there it should remain as such. Nothing more than a potential gateway to another, more tangible term for the mouths and eyes and nose and minds of others.
A beer is not “smooth,” end of story. A beer is a wild collection of astringent, cerealed, resinous, or estery, flowing into specific feelings and emotions. It is everything your tongue is trying to get you to say, but your brain may be cautious about spitting out. From the peppery and lemony aspects of hops to tobacco and caramel of malt, other linguistic options abound.
The woven tale of a beer needs more than one descriptor. Choosing “smooth” is not only a literary let down, but it’s also actively turning away from our own senses and imagination. ”Smooth” simplifies complexity into one measly syllable.
Even for Holy Grail Beers such as Westvleteren 12, “smooth” is dispatched at an alarming pace as a key assistant to solving the mystery of pinpointing aspects of the world-famous beer. Bourbon County Brand Stout, abrasively manipulated to coat your tongue with hints of bourbon and jab at your throat with matches of boozy heat, is “smooth.”
As a word to describe aroma and taste, “smooth” is too lazily thrown around. Its use should be a first step into bringing more depth to a description. Perhaps a beer is “mild” in its presentation of smoked meat or “mellow” with its sweet raisin taste. But please, don’t ever just say “smooth” and stop.
Oh, “smooth” is most certainly a definition of beer. Every beer, by virtue of being liquid, is smooth. But to declare a beer’s sensory characteristics simply as “smooth” is no better than relying on its disgraceful cousin, “drinkability,” which is essentially describing a beer as drinkable because it doesn’t kill you when you consume it.
Just as drinks have “drinkability” because they can be drunk, that doesn’t mean beers should be “smooth” due to the state of their matter. They are more than that and so too is our ability to showcase their virtues verbally.
”Smooth” is nothing more than word vomit, digested in the chasms of the brain, spewed from our mouths and flushed down our collective consciousness, only to reappear all around us, as if some form of contagious disease so easily passed from one person to the next.
Luckily, we have a cure. The medication is simple to prescribe and even more fun to take. All that is required is beer (or two), an imaginative brain, a thirsty liver, and willingness toward experimental wordplay. Hell, there’s even a guide to get you started.
Which is why I ask you to reconsider “smooth,” a boring and simplistic word which is nothing like the beer we love, cherish and talk about.
Next time a friend asks your impression of a beer, take a deep breath, recede momentarily into your brain’s left hemisphere and respond with a full effort. Is it herbal, like tea? Is it sweet, like molasses? Is it sour, forcing those tastes of wet blanket?
No matter your answer, it’ll be true and you’ll sound smoother for it.
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac