Why taste beer? Wouldn’t it be easier if we were to just drink, relax, and enjoy? While that is certainly a product of many interactions we have with this tasty and complex beverage, there are many times when it is more engaging and enjoyable to think about what you are drinking.
Beer has a long and storied history around the world. It comes in many shapes and sizes and has more variability in flavor and aroma profile than wine. Not only is it fun to learn about styles of beer you try, but it also creates a deeper appreciation for the beer you are drinking.
As a brewer, I spend a significant amount of my time tasting and thinking about my beer. This is part of our quality control and analysis.
From the second it goes in the fermenter to the time it hits your glass, we are always analyzing and checking it for any off-flavors. We also look for certain esters or compounds that we are looking to develop, and the overall drinkability.
The first step in our QA/QC program is objective tasting. While we do a myriad of other tests, including yeast cell counts and methylene blue stains for yeast viability, taste is by far the most important aspect.
Grisette Methelyene Blue Stain – Yeast viability
So, what is taste? We like to think of it in broader terms. You typically have a number of different senses working in harmony to provide a mix of stimulation. Your tongue alone has around 10,000 taste buds. These help sense various chemicals that are dissolved in the beer you are drinking.
Along with taste, there is also the sensation of mouthfeel in beer. This is the viscosity, carbonation, dryness, temperature, alcohol, etc…of the beer you are drinking.
Your nose is also an important aspect of taste. In fact, your olfaction system is much more complex than your tongue.
We have 9 million olfactory neurons that are able to perceive 10,000 different aromas. Interestingly, the neurons fired when sensing an aroma tend to trigger the hypothalamus (appetite, fear, anger), hippocampus (memories) and the brain stem. This is one of the reasons why the sense of smell is so powerful. You are able to bring back long lost memories, like baking cookies at grandma’s house, with just the whiff of the same chemicals.
These memories brought back by the sense of smell are some of the most impactful psychological aspects of taste. There are also other psychological factors like appearance. How the beer looks can significantly impact your perception and preference for something.
Anecdotally, Juchniewicz*(2008) found things as simple as body movement and appearance significantly affected people’s perception of the quality of a performance. This could certainly transfer to beer. For years, beer drinkers have been the focus of millions of dollars of ads saying only the best beer will be crystal clear and bright or “as cold as the Rockies.” This could potentially affect your perception and enjoyment of a beer that is hazy or served “cellar temperature.”
* Juchniewicz, J. (2008). The influence of physical movement on the perception of musical performance. Psychol. Music 36, 417–427. doi: 10.1177/0305735607086046