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On Taste

Originally published at GeekBeer. Please leave any comments there.

We think a lot about flavor, particularly when thinking about how to describe flavors on the podcast. I’ve been mulling over this topic for some time now, and since the fine folks at Boak and Bailey’s Beer Blog got started on it, I figured I’d continue my comments on that post in a longer version here.

Taste is an extremely variant, extremely individualized sense. A glass of grapefruit juice might taste bitter when paired with a donut, but it might seem sweet when paired with a dinner roll flavored with rosemary. Spicy foods to one person are not necessary spicy to another, and likewise with the other major flavors. The idea of the mysterious fifth “umami” flavor was only recently discovered, and is still not well understood.

We’re still finding out interesting things about tasting. For instance, girls taste things better than boys, that children prefer sweet and sour flavors to bitter ones, and that food preferences are geographical, partially because we get them at birth from mother’s milk. There’s a segment of beer drinkers that refer to the “lupulin threshold shift” to describe becoming desensitized to hop flavor. Our senses also change with age, and with what we do during the day, even if it doesn’t relate to eating. It doesn’t help that expected flavors are incredibly important in how we taste food, particularly complex foods.

Perhaps most interestingly, there was Samuel Renshaw, a college professor who did research into sensory improvement in the early 1900s. He started by teaching people to read faster without teaching them to read faster — he flashed sequences of numbers for as little as 1/100th of a second and told them to memorize the number. Students got progressively better at doing this, and their reading skill increased in step with this improvement.

Renshaw also did experiments with taste, and found many interesting things. Some highlights: In low concentrations in water, salt and sugar rarely taste like you think they should. Salt often tastes sweet, and sugar can taste sour or even bitter. When tasting alcoholic beverages, sequential blind tests of the same liquid can result in wildly variant perceptions by the taster. When tasting distilled water, the merest hint that it might be flavored, or even the temperature of the water itself, can affect the perception of the taster. Renshaw was eventually hired to taste whisky, and ended up developing extremely sophisticated methods of improving the consistency in commercial beverages.

To complicate matters further, you might be one of 25% of the population that can’t taste that well anyway (a non-taster) or you might be one of the 25% that tastes too much (a supertaster). (Wondering if you are? Try this quiz.) You might also be one of the people who can’t taste certain things.

There are also, of course, the myriad of things that can affect a person’s sense of taste for one day to the next, or even one hour to the next. Spicy foods can cause your nose to run, which can affect how you perceive tastes. Strong flavors can affect how you taste things for hours after you eat them (there’s a reason you don’t brush your teeth before drinking orange juice). You’ve probably heard of the miracle fruit that turns sour things sweet. Your degree of exhaustion, the time of day, lighting conditions, and even the color of your food can affect how things taste. If you’re dehydrated, you won’t produce as much saliva, and won’t be able to taste as well. Hell, you might even prefer flavors (like sweetness) even if you can’t perceive it.

Combined with these results about the consistency of wine judging, all of this makes me a bit leery when hearing people talk about the ultra-specifics of beer tasting. Sure, right now, it might have notes that recall certain herbs… but what if you tasted it tomorrow? I’m all for beer and food matching, but not when it’s based on extremely fine perceptions of flavor.

This is why Tom and I prefer to stick with large flavors in the podcast, and it’s probably why the World Beer Cup Style Descriptions are all in big flavors: Malty, hoppy fruity, floral, citrusy. These flavors are easily transmitted in our podcast format: everyone knows what a hoppy beer tastes like. That’s the key, right? Transferring information. We could describe beer like wine, with adjectives like oaky, piney, with specific berries or fruits… But who knows if that’s how this particular beer would taste tomorrow. In our minds, it’s much better to describe flavors that others can identify with, even if the flavors aren’t as descriptive as they could be.

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