An Adjective Adjunct: When Beery Wordplay Lacks Soul

A beer description as empty as it seems.
A beer description as empty as it looks.

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.

keystone-light-always-smooth-widemouth-canIt’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.

“Smooth?” Please. Gimme your heart, make it real, or else forget about it.

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.

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac


15 thoughts on “An Adjective Adjunct: When Beery Wordplay Lacks Soul

  1. I use this word a lot when I write about beers with a silken mouthfeel, especially wheat beers, which by their nature are “smooth.” I agree that it, along with “easy drinking” and “satisfying” are crutch words used by ad people who don’t really know their beer, but I think it’s fine applied in the correct context.

    That said, I’ll probably start looking for other words to use, because your post makes me realize how often I use it!

    1. Absolutely. I think the variety of words to best describe mouthfeel isn’t as vast as I’d like it to be, but “smooth” is most certainly appropriate in that manner.

      It’s just when it starts being passed around for every other attribute that my eye starts twitching.

      I’ve found that in recent weeks, friends find themselves at a loss of words when I ask what they think of a beer. I tell them there’s no wrong answer and they can describe it however they’d like.

      More often than not, their response starts and ends with “smooth.” Baby steps.

  2. Hmmm, now I have to go through my whole blog and make sure I haven’t fallen victim to this. I definitely should be able to better than “smooth”. Unless I applied it to Guinness. Then it stays. Sorry.

    1. I’ve found several UK beer examples that purposefully have “smooth” in their name for essentially that exact reason.

      For Guinness, I’ll allow it – but I’m sure you can come up with some “roasted” something or other comments, too.

  3. I think it’s used for a multitude of reasons. First, most people lack both the imagination and the vocabulary to find the actual words that describe the beer (or any food or beverage, really. I bet that a quick survey of food descriptions would garner a similarly limited vocabulary.) That, and/or people are just too lazy to grasp for a better word. Second, and probably more of a factor, sales and marketing people use these words to essentially entice people who would otherwise be afraid to try new beers that would make their palettes stretch beyond their Bud Light because let’s face it – “smooth” is code for “Don’t worry, you won’t taste a thing.”

    1. I fear it has a lot to do with marketing, as a term that was planted in our brains and never strays far. I tried to see if I’d be able to pinpoint when the term became more commonplace in American lexicon in relation to beer, but it was harder than I thought.

      But I think you’re spot on. Whether it’s “smooth” or “drinkability” or as Jim pointed out above, “easy drinking,” that sound more like buzzwords that have become infused in our general terminology we don’t see them as such any more.

  4. There is absolutely no question that this a paper that should be presented to the “Beer Marketing Dingbats” Annual Conference. (or whatever they call themselves) If I was still teaching year twelve English or year 8 9 10 &11 English I would have it blown up and stuck on my classroom wall. Fantastic. Absolutely over the top, brilliant.

    1. Thank you so much! I really appreciate such kinds words.

      This has been a post stewing in my brain for at least a few weeks, probably closer to a couple months. It just needed time to marinate and some good editing by friends.

  5. P.S. Please excuse the typo. I wanted to put it down quickly and didn’t check it out first.

  6. Beautiful. Editing, amirite?

  7. Smooth is a mouthfeel or texture, I have had many a beers that are both smooth and creamy in terms of texture and it is a nice attribute. That being said it’s only part of the experience and doesn’t describe the taste at all. I think some people use it to replace the word balanced, but still saying a beer is balanced doesn’t say what flavours are balanced. Honestly, I think it’s mostly drunk ratebeer/beeradvocate/untapped beer raters that are so far gooned all they can write is “smooth”.

    1. Agreed – I think a lot of it has to do with drinkers (beer enthusiasts or not) who don’t want to venture too far from any descriptive comfort zone. It’s very easy to offer impressions in a multitude of ways, but I think marketing and packaging are relied on as a crutch, and here we are with smooth and balanced and all that.

  8. Rebs | The Bake & Brew December 30, 2017 — 9:59 am

    #guilty I need a “smooth” jar 😛 Glad you reposted this, as I had forgotten about the beer flavor wheel and as a 2nd time beer newbie smooth is 100% such an easy go-to.

    After years of drinking just an occasional beer and not really digging into the flavors much, I have lost a lot of “muscle memory.” When you’re at that stage it can be really hard to say with confidence what you taste and feel in a beer, let alone try to find the right words that will be universal and communicate your experience to another across a screen. Having rescources like that and seeing alternate suggestions to try on for size like your example of “mild” is helpful for those of us just getting started (again). Cheers!

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