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Tuesday, 4 October 2011


I learned a new word while I was over at the Great American Beer Festival. Or rather, I learned a new usage of a word I hadn't really heard for ages.

When I was a kid, we used to buy this really cheap washing up liquid called Sunlight.  I can't find a picture now of how it used to look - there's no reason why I should be able to.  It was one of those cylindrical white plastic tubes that you willed empty so you could glue Airfix model parts onto and spraypaint silver to make a rocket like they showed you on Blue Peter. Or maybe that was just me.

But anyway.

It had a really cheap artificial lemon smell, and from the pack above I'm guessing that hasn't changed.  And we used to have a thick, heavy dishcloth that never got washed or replaced (our house was superficially spotless but some of the detail was well dodgy).  This dishcloth was used to wipe down surfaces and clean plates, and after the cleaning was done it was never hung over the tap to dry out; it was just left in a bundle in the bottom of the bowl.  And so it acquired a kind of damp smell, but the artificial lemon aroma was so powerful it override the damp smell, and the smell of grease.

This lemon-wet-damp-cloth-grease smell sounds disgusting. But I liked it.  I don't know why, I just did.  And it's a smell, or a sense memory of one, that I get from some ultra-hoppy IPAs.  Just as runny French cheese might be described as 'sweaty socks', or certain aged beers as 'farmyard', divorced from its context - or perhaps even because of it if we're driven by bravado - it's a negative association used to describe an appealing smell.  If you've ever heard me describe a beer as smelling of 'wet dishcloth', this is a more detailed description of what I mean.

Over at GABF last week, I heard people describing hop character as 'dank' - this was a new one on me.  I wasn't even sure if it was a descriptor or a new hop variety I hadn't heard of.  According to my OED, dank means 'unpleasantly damp and cold', and is of Middle English origin, probably from the Swedish word for 'marshy spot'.  And the ever-helpful Stan Hieronymous explained to me that it was being used here to describe a full-on West Coast hoppy character, big on citrus - big on everything - and best exemplified by Simcoe hops.

When I sniffed a proffered example, there it was: my old mum's damp, artificial lemon dishcloth smell.

It's probably more than coincidence that US hop freaks have chosen a word that means 'damp' to describe an extreme hop aroma that I associate with an eternally damp, lemon-impregnated dishcloth.

I'm feeling ambivalent about extreme hops at the moment - which I'll write more about in due course - but I'm glad I now have a word to describe one of my favourite extreme hop aromas.  I love it - it's a good word, slightly dangerous and a little alienating, and therefore perfect.


Anonymous said...

You happen to try the Pro-Am American IPA at GABF called Dankness? It was quite nice... and dank.

Jeff Rosenmeier said...

Not sure they explained it to you fully. Dank in the States means the smell you get when you put your head in a fresh bag of 'weed' (or Medical Cannabis in CA and CO)...that is Dank and the US hops (I like Columbus for this) give you this character when dry hopped with...

Evan Rail said...

Pete, on the West Coast of the US, "dank" has long meant weed, especially moist, sticky green buds. AKA The Kind.

In beer, people used to use "dank" to refer to the resiny, herbal, marijuana-like hop aromas that are most like dank weed. Not sure if that's close to the smell of your washing-up liquid, but for what it's worth...

Anonymous said...

In the US, 'dank' is also used for very potent cannabis, so could it be that this is why the term is used when describing very hoppy beers?

The two plants are related, and a heady, hoppy aroma would certainly bear comparison!

Pete Brown said...

Ha! The joy of blogging. I guess Stan was being a little polite.

Obviously the weed is the thing. But my alternative history, while completely wrong, also works.

Hops eh? Whatever will they do next?

Alan said...

But the taste you taste is still there, Pete. I describe it as aiming aerosol lemon furniture polish straight into your mouth. Which would also leave you in a certain mental state with a gob-full of stickiness.

Stan Hieronymus said...

One more date point: The 2009 pro-am winner was "Herbal Joe’s Columbarillo IPA." Yes, it was dank.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Oops, that was "data point." Must have stuck my head in the wrong bag this morning.

I agree with Alan. What you smell, how the word provides context and the memories that follow make just as much sense.

I guess our conversation was a continuation of one started a few hours before about where "dank" ends and "catty" begins. Defining that is definitely a fool's errand, but it my errand.

Jeff Alworth said...

I've always hated the word "dank" to describe the catty, marijuana-scented aroma of some Northwest hops (CTZ is another culprit). It's an inexact word in its ganja context, and when applied to hop character becomes essentially disconnected from the English language. But arguing slang is a mook's game.

As a bit of added commentary, it's worth noting that the Cascadian corridor--No. Cal to British Columbia--is a famous pot-cultivation zone. West Coast weed is famously strong and wet, and there's a long tradition of West Coast stoner culture in which words to describe the plant are as varied and colorful as Inuit words for snow.

Hmmm, all of this is giving me the idea of a post...

Des de Moor said...

Ah, that explains why Sweetwater in Atlanta have a series of extreme beers called Dank Tank, which always puzzled me. Dank to me is musty, also a beer flavour characteristic but a very different one. However I have been known to note (not unpleasant) washing up liquid and detergent flavours in some beers, often from the hop resins. Nothing like the stench of the stuff the annoying local urchins smoke on the stairs of our block when one of my less attentive neighbours fails to shut the street door properly though.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Des - This means I have to point out that Sweetwater's flagship is 420 Extra Pale Ale.

Discussed "dank" with Jim Koch day after Pete and I spoke. He said, "To me dank means dirt" and therefore would be better used to describe a hop like Golding.

DS said...

Funny, I've always thought of the taste, similarly, as washing up liquid. Like the way a glass of water tastes if you haven't rinsed the glass properly after washing it up. But in a nice way.

Birkonian said...

I live just down the road from Port Sunlight where Lever Brothers first made Sunlight soap and detergents. Unfortunately, there are no extreme IPA's brewed there although you may find some of the locals have a little 'Dank'.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

I was in The Cider Bar in Newton Abbott last week.
An old bar that sells nothing but cider, which is probably how it got its name.
Among the many farmyard ciders I drank was one which simply tasted of nothing else but cow shit.
It wasn't dank but rank.
Seeing my struggle to finish it the buxom wench ( yes, indeed,there was one behind the bar ) helpfully topped it up with a couple of inches of ginger beer.
It transformed the taste instantly to one which made it approachably palatable.
Next morning after my usual ablutions Mrs Professor Pie-Tin sniffed the air and remarked " even second-hand that stuff still smells like cow shit. "
Ah,the joys of being a dedicated toper.

Gary Gillman said...

Definitely there is a catty nature to some U.S. hops, they do have a humid musty smell some of them. I wouldn't say Cascade though, it's all bright grapefruit notes and Southern Cal sunshine to me (regardless of where grown). But some of the other American aroma hops have the character suggested by the word dank.

I don't mind it provided the taste is not overpowering, the beer is cold and fizzy (forget real ale with dank hops) and a bowl of spicy chili, or chicken wings, say, is alongside.

To get the balance I want, often I will blend an APA with an English pale ale, or an American one with a mild character.


Gary Gillman said...

Interesting about the cider. In England earlier this year I couldn't finish a scrumpy with a similar character. I think pronounced brettanomyces (wild yeast influence) was the cause in this case.

Good distinction between dank and rank. To my taste again, dank hops can be just fine used right, with Black IPA and also U.S.-style barley wines being further instances.

I suppose in the end though it's down to the particular beer, either you like it or not!


Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

For me dank suggests a bar cellar in Paris where I used to clean the bar and loo on a Sunday night. The cellar had that musty, dank, damp earthy note that I ended up assoicating with Biere de Garde (in a very nice way).

As for danky hops, I know what you mean, but I have always though pungent and musky, almost erotic in the charge on the nose.