In the last few days since I first saw the press release for Cyclops, the new system for categorizing the flavor of beer introduced by CAMRA (The Campaign or Real Ale), I’ve been wrestling with the question of whether this is a good idea or not. It’s generated a lot of initial press, especially throughout England, and it ranges from high praise to mild ridicule to being called “perhaps the worst idea ever.” I didn’t want to rush to judgment on this one so I’ve been taking my time trying to weigh the pros and cons.
A CAMRA promotional photo showing how coasters with the Cyclops system info might be used.
In general the goal of making beer more accessible seems like a positive step. I can only assume many people unfamiliar with the many different beer styles and nearly limitless potential flavors and aromas might feel pretty overwhelmed. Even many craft beer lovers don’t know all of the beer styles and this point was recently hammered home to me when several beer bloggers mistakenly identified Rock Bottom’s Ned Flanders Ale as defective when in fact it was an interpretation of a style — Flanders Red Ale — that was supposed to have sour flavors coupled with unusual Brettanomyces and lactobacillic elements. Sure it was an unusual style but these were people who claim some affinity for good beer and indeed have undertaken to write about it. So if they were confused, it sure suggests a real need for something like this.
The Official Position
CAMRA claims Cyclops is an “initiative that has been created to help and educate pub goers that are interested in giving real ale a try for the very first time, or have only tried a few pints and want to find out more!”
More from CAMRA:
Real ale can be a complicated subject as a lot of craft goes in to the brewing of our national alcoholic drink. Some beer experts in the past have used very ‘flowery’ language to describe a beer and some consumers have found this hard to understand.
The new ‘Cyclops’ campaign has been designed to inform new real ale drinkers of what style of beer they are drinking, what its alcohol content is, what the beer should look like, what it should smell like and of course, what it should taste like using very simple but informative language.
According to the press release, the goal of the Cyclops program is to “demystify real ale after research showed that 1 in 3 people would try more real ale if its characteristics were made easier to understand in pubs.” Apparently in designing the system, they took “lessons from the UK wine industry,” which I’m not sure was the best place to look for inspiration. Wine and beer are not the same, of course, so what works well in one may not translate to the other. There are similarities to be sure, but do they work in this instance? I’ll explore that question more fully below.
More from the press release:
Declining beer sales in the UK have brought beer consumers and brewers together to revitalise the market for real ale, Britain’s national pub drink. Following the success of the wine industry to make wine more accessible to all consumers through simple tasting notes Cyclops will use common language to explain what different real ales should look, smell and taste like. Sweetness and bitterness are the two dominant taste qualities of real ale and Cyclops using a scale of 1 to 5 for each enables drinkers to work out how sweet and bitter they like their beers.
The new scheme was the brainchild of David Bremner, Head of Marketing at Everards Brewery in Leicester. Everards pilot scheme aimed to promote its beers to new consumers who may have never tried real ale before or who had only tried a few pints in the past. By using attractive imagery and simplified language, real ales are described on promotional material such as beer mats, posters, tasting cards and pump-clip crowners to inform consumers of what they are buying. This information will also be placed on the back on beer handpulls to keep pub staff informed of what the real ale is like.
So far, only fourteen of Britain’s brewers have signed onto the program, but a few of them are big players and together a large number of pubs will likely see the new promotional material.
Okay, let’s assume for now this is something that’s worth doing. Is the Cyclops system that CAMRA came up with a good method to educate consumers about individual beers? Not being a brewery member of CAMRA, I can only reverse engineer how the ratings are created.
Each beer has five essential pieces of information: See, Smell, Taste and then a five-point scale for bitter and sweet. Let’s look at one example to see how this would work. We’ll use Everard’s Tiger Beer.
- SEE: See is a rather awkward way to say the beer’s look, it’s color. Of course, it also seems to ignore other factors when looking at a beer like head retention, head color, Brussels lace, bubble size, cloudiness, etc., but I guess the goal is to keep things simple. In the case of Tiger, the SEE is listed as: “AUBURN, CHESTNUT BROWN.” And while that easily translate to give you an idea or impression of the beer’s color from what I can tell the color assigned is arbitrary and based on the individual brewery’s decision on what to call the beer’s color. To be truly useful, it seems like they should have been tied to one of the commonly used color scales. Beer color is represented using either the SRM (Standard Reference Method) or the EBC (European Brewing Convention) color measurement. There’s also an older one known as Lovibonds, but it’s essentially the same as SRM.
Perhaps if every beer that was 9-11 Lovibonds was called “Copper” every time that would be useful and if brewers wanted to use a more romantic, evocative color descriptor then the second color name could be used for that. I can’t be 100% certain, but from a random sample of color names, it doesn’t appear to be standardized, which renders it somewhat subjective and less useful.
To illustrate this now, here’s three brewer’s SEE descriptors for their entire portfolios:
Badger Ales: dark amber, ruby brown / light amber, copper / tawny, light golden brown / pale gold
Everards: amber / auburn, chestnut brown / tawny copper / gold straw
Fuller’s: tan / light gold / tawny / auburn / deep ruby red / chestnut
Just in these three, already there’s conflicts. Everards has one beer described as “auburn, chestnut brown” and Fuller’s has one they call “auburn” and another called “chestnut.” So are the two Fuller’s beers the same color as the one from Everards? It’s not exactly clear, is it? And if the goal is to make it more accesible, then I’m not sure this does the trick very well as it only leads to more confusion.
- SMELL: While perhaps less genteel than aroma, smell at least conveys exactly what this represents. But again, trying to encapsulate something so subjective and personal is all but impossible. There’s no real standards here to cling to so I’m not sure this information helps. There are a few beers that have specific signature aromas such as the coriander and orange peel in Wits or the clove and bananas in German-style hefeweizens. But for most beers, the positive aromas are not really universal. In any particular beer, some people may smell one thing, others another and no one is really wrong. Everyone’s olfactory sense is different and/or developed to a greater or lesser degree than another person’s sense. So looking again at our three brewery examples, they all read like someone’s tasting notes. And having been collating tasting notes for years, I can tell you everybody has their own method, style and personal terminology for taking notes.
- TASTE: See above. For the most part, what’s true for a beer’s nose is true for the flavors, as well.
- BITTER: Using a five-point scale, the idea here appears to be to give at least a range of the bitterness of a particular beer. Personally I like the International Bitterness Units (IBU) scale, but I realize it’s a little unwieldy for the general populace. It’s more useful if you know the IBU ranges of beer styles. It too, has limitations since the higher you go on the scale the less accurate the formula for figuring out IBUs becomes. But by and large, its served the industry well. I’m not sure that a bitterness scale with only a range of five (six if you use zero) gives enough information. It may be enough for the majority of English ales but if you try to go beyond that it may not work. But I suppose of all the Cyclops scales at least this one is easily understood and does give some information that may be meaningful.
- SWEET: The sweetness imparted by a beer from either the malt or alcohol (or esters) is like hops, a much broader range than a five-point scale can adequately capture. The problem is, as Stan from Beer Therapy puts so well, there’s “more to hops than bitterness. And there’s certainly more to malt than sweetness.” Stan hits upon perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome in designing such a system to categorize beer, which is that a true appreciation of beer’s complexities cannot be distilled down into a simple series of numbers and universal descriptors.
- OTHER FACTORS: All of the examples of the Cyclops system in use also includes the beer style, percentage of alcohol and a short sentence or two description. This is generally the same information currently available for most beers, and it does add to the overall picture, but it doesn’t exactly simplify things.
Here is three ways in which Everard’s Tiger Beer Cyclops system data might be used:
In a festival program.
As a poster.
On a coaster.
The Name: Cyclops?
According to CAMRA’s press release, the name Cyclops comes “due to the one eye, nose and mouth imagery used on the promotional material.” The Cyclops originates, of course, from Greek mythology and “is a member of a primordial race of giants, each with a single eye in the middle of his forehead.”
But as Alan writing on A Good Beer Blog points out, the most “famous Cyclops, Homer’s Polyphemus [in The Odyssey], was blinded for life by drinking strong wine and ate people. This is hardly the making of a good brand. But even when he had one good eye he saw things … like he was born with one eye in the middle of his forehead — as in without [a] particularly strong ability to see things from other perspectives.”
At first I thought perhaps cyclops might be an acronym for something but when I found out it was simply named for the promotional materials, I threw up my hands. What a terribly unthoughtful way to choose a name for something you know will be controversial and which you want to succeed. So the name has absolutely nothing to do with the program itself or what it’s trying to accomplish. It’s likely to confuse most people even more plus a cyclops doesn’t exactly conjure up a warm and fuzzy image that could be exploited by marketing efforts.
What Others Are Saying
Cyclops is partly aimed at raising the respectability of a drink often miscast as the cause of Britain’s social ills, namely the notorious binge-drinking culture that sees city center bars, hospitals and police stations filled with inebriated youngsters.
“Wine is seen as respectable, but to many people beer means thugs. This is completely untrue. What we’re trying to do is elevate beer to a level equal with wine, where it becomes normal to drink beer at a dinner party.
“Brewers are responding to this. Some are even producing beer in elegant wine-shaped bottles, and as most wine writers agree, beer goes much better with food than wine.”
Says Protz, while he was once ridiculed for talking floridly about lowly bitters and stouts, more people are now appreciating the finer points of blending hops, barley and malts.
The London Telegraph, on the other hands, responds to the idea of a pub “where particular ales are suggested for particular dishes” by condescendingly suggesting that “the day of the beer snob cannot be long away.” Now that’s clueless reporting. Firstly, we beer snobs have been simmering in the underground for decades and secondly, food and beer pairings are not exactly a radical idea. If you can pair one beverage with food you can pair another. The author, the aptly named Neil Tweedie, is a wine writer, which doubtless explains his disparaging tone.
After writing this all out and thinking about how this might be used, the inescapable conclusion is that while I applaud the attempt it’s essentially an unworkable idea, especially if you try to broaden it to include all beer styles rather than just a narrow range of English ales. It’s a shame, too, because I’m pretty anal-retentive and detail-oriented so I would love a way to categorize all beers using a single, simple method. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is it. I’m not willing to call it the worst idea ever, because however flawed it is, at least it’s attempt. It’s more than you and I have tried. In the end, I think Cyclops might need some glasses, he’s a little myopic. Pint glasses?