You love the blog, so subscribe to the Beervana Podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud today!

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

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.


  1. "In blind taste tests, people perform no better than chance at distinguishing good wine from rotgut"

    No, they are no better than chance at distinguishing expensive wine from cheap wine. There's more than one interpretation of that finding.

  2. Unknown, you are entirely correct. Price is a weak proxy to quality, and the study was faulted for confusing those variables. I've made a change, and I hope you don't mind the more evocative "rotgut" standing in for "cheap"--you gotta let a blogger have a little verbal fun.

  3. Kevin Scaldeferri11:05 AM, March 06, 2012

    Hmm... "Unknown" was me, blogger seems to have gotten confused somehow.

    I'm also a little skeptical that the situation is notably better for beer. Do you really think most people would reliably distinguish CDAs from IPAs if tasting completely blind? American Barleywines from Imperial IPAs? And, I'm quite certain that price doesn't reliably correlate to quality of beer either, although we don't have the same variation of price that wine does.

  4. " Unlike wine, the flavors are different enough that even a rank novice would be able to tell."

    I really do not know where this idea could come from. I have never met anyone would could not differentiate between wines as is suggested. And a hell of a lot of US craft beers taste a hell of a lot alike.

  5. Kevin and Alan,

    We are handicapped by not having complementary studies on beer. As far as the wine stuff goes, Alan, there's a decent history of similar findings, so I assume it's pretty solid. It's peer-reviewed, scholarly stuff.

    As to whether beer tastes different, it does depend on style. I've done blind tastings of pale ales, and that was tougher than IPA and imperial IPA tastings I've done. But even still, the flavors were distinctive.

    Could you tell the difference between an IPA and a CDA--I certainly could. That roasty note kills me. Barley wines and imperial IPAs? These are fairly distinctive, too. We can't know because we haven't done the research, but I think you'll agree that the difference in range among beer styles is radically more broad than the range between wines.

  6. Link to the studies then. With 30 years of research in I don't buy it at all. Have a Manzanilla and then a 5 putonos Tokay and tell me there's not as much range in wine.

  7. Kevin Scaldeferri5:19 PM, March 06, 2012


    I think you are conflating the tasting abilities of trained professionals or avid amateurs with the general public. Master sommeliers perform amazing feats of wine identification. True, they don't do it strictly blind, but to assert they can't tell red wine from white is to somehow claim that they are identifying wines (down to region, or sometimes even estate and vintage) more based on the appearance than the smell and taste, which seems hard to believe.

    Moreover, the studies I've seen showing that people can't tell expensive from cheap, good from bad, red from white, frequently aren't blind comparisons either. Instead they largely seem to be displaying the power of suggestion. For example, if you dry white wine red, people will often describe it with typical red wine flavors. That's not exactly the same as blindfolding people and asking them if a wine is red or white. Similarly, if you serve the same wine out of two different bottles, people respond to their expectations.

    As far as true blind tasting goes, here's an embarrassing true story. About a year ago, my lady and I smuggled a couple bottles in to a local theater chain known for cool venues but bad beer. A Hop Henge and a MacTarnahans Amber. In the dark, we grabbed one at random and filled our glasses. I was quite certain we were drinking the MacTarnahans until we opened bottle #2. Yes, I had mistaken a 95IBU, 8.5% Imperial IPA for a 32IBU, 5.1% Amber.

    Now, I won't claim I have the greatest nose or palate out there, and I wasn't really sniffing and swirling and swishing under the circumstances. But, I also think there's no particular reason to think that Joe Six-Pack can pick out one beer from another blind.

  8. Aiiieee, I'm on the ropes here.

    Alan, you're right that wines taste different from one another, even when they use the same varietal. I don't dispute that, but I do dispute--pretty strongly--the idea that the range is anything like beer. Are you really arguing that the range is the same, or are you just being argumentative? (Think gueuze to pilsner to IPA to rauchbier to weizen to stout.) With more ingredients, maillard reactions, and so on, it's not really a close call. Btw, I've already linked to reports about three studies and Google gets you to more like this one with little difficulty. I don't have time to do a lit review (though, actually, I wish I did).

    Kevin, the data test all different kinds of stuff. One of the studies was done with skilled wine tasters--actually, one of the most important done by Frederic Brochet a decade ago. They all support the idea that humans aren't especially good at distinguishing the flavors of wine.

    I can't speak to your personal example, except to say that flavor is very complex. Your tasting environment was heavily colored by a brain devoted to other activities, so that's a whole different dimension. Unless you have especially bad hardware, my guess is that you could make the distinction if your repeated the experiment at home.

  9. "We can't know because we haven't done the research"

    Well then let's get cracking. Know any good research grant writers?

  10. Kevin Scaldeferri9:56 AM, March 07, 2012

    On a less argumentative note... what does the Kindle version include vs what's in the full kit? That's a pretty dramatic price difference.

  11. My sense of taste isn't great, I've realized over the past couple of years. People will taste a beer or wine around me and start describing it, and once they point out flavor elements, and I take another sip I then have "oh yeah, now that you mention it, I do taste that" sorts of moments. I either like a beer or wine, or I don't. That said, I do think I could determine if a wine is white or red in a blind-folded taste test.

    I heard somewhere (don't remember where) that wine has ~80 flavor elements and beer has ~200 so beer has the capacity to vary much more. Wonder if a google search will link to a supporting article - going to have to try now.

  12. @J,Fick
    you will find the 'A.Schmelzle beer aroma wheel' "a useful tool to describe the complexity of beer . . . developed at Hochschule RheinMain University of Applied Science . . . 2008". I count 72 aromas listed.

    Briess Malt & Ingredients website list 24 malted barley flavors; 3X the number of heat induced aromas on the wheel. Assuming aroma and flavor are closely coupled.

    And, I second your experience that when prompted I can discern aromas / tastes not initially noted. After I sample a new beer, I scan BeerAdvocate descriptions seeking elements I may have missed.

  13. Sorry to have dropped this but it is a busy week. I hear you but it's sort of a my father is tougher than yours argument or like "which is more interesting - bread or cheese?"

    Can't both be good and interesting?

  14. Alan, on the busy thing, I hear you. I'm usually the one commenting days after everyone has left the conversation.

    In any case, I would say both are definitely good and interesting and hope that nothing here suggests otherwise. They are, however, different, and this is one way in which that's true. Or in any case, one way in which I assert it's true.