In Tasting, Advantage Beer

As the science of tasting becomes more well-understood, we must confront certain uncomfortable truths: in particular, we aren't so great at it. In blind taste tests, people perform no better than chance at distinguishing good expensive wine from rotgut. Hell, even experienced tasters can't distinguish whether a wine is red or white. So it's no surprise that a new study confirms that people stink at recognizing subtle flavors:
A new study by researchers at Penn State finds that when it comes to appreciating the subtleties of wine, experts can taste things many of us can't. "What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different," says John Hayes of Penn State.
(The good news: scientists think this is mostly a matter of training and experience, not a function of faulty taste buds or olfactory nerves.) That quote is from NPR, who had a piece on the new study this morning. As I was listening to it, I was reminded of what a huge advantage beer has over wine in terms of flavor articulation. The difference between a poor-quality wine and a good wine (let's leave price out of it) are a cluster of very similar qualities. The clarity and balance of a pinot noir grape makes a good wine, but you still have to contend with pinot noir grapes.

In beer, the range is orders of magnitude bigger. Part of the thing that makes people lose confidence in wine (aside from the fact that they're gambling with thirty bucks a pop) is that they fear/know it all tastes pretty much the same. If someone suggests to you that there's some blackberry in the glass, sure, you can swish until you find it. It's difficult to feel like you're just faking it. The whole thing can feel like a game of three card monty. Or a modern art exhibit.

Beer, not so much. For one thing, style variation is tremendous. Is there any product with such an expansive range of flavors? But even within styles, tastes are usually pretty easy to distinguish. Put five IPAs in a blind flight and have people taste them, and they'll be able to tell the difference. In beer, blind tasting is heartening for this reason. Unlike wine, the flavors are different enough that even a rank novice would be able to tell. (And trying to conceal a stout among them--good luck with that.) Not every style is as easy, but I don't think anyone would argue that beer is a lot more obvious than wine.

Plug. By the way, you could buy my Tasting Toolkit if you wish to test this hypothesis. It's educational and fun for the whole family. You could even test wine, too, just to see how much more distinctive beer is.