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Saturday, September 05, 2009

Subjectivity of Taste

There must be something in the air, because through no special searching of my own, I found reference to yet another study that has bearing on the question of price, sales, and the perception of quality (see past posts: Does expensive beer taste better? and Cost and experience). This latest study may be the most devastating, because it undermines the very idea that we are able to distinguish good from bad at all.

Looking through results of 13 wine competitions, researchers found:
Of the 2,440 wines entered in more than three competitions, 47 percent received Gold medals, but 84 percent of these same wines also received no award in another competition. Thus, many wines that are viewed as extraordinarily good at some competitions are viewed as below average at others.
It gets worse: the likelihood of winning a gold medal was no greater than chance alone.* To conclude, the report asserted:
  1. there is almost no consensus among the 13 wine competitions regarding wine quality,
  2. for wines receiving a Gold medal in one or more competitions, it is very likely that the same wine received no award at another,
  3. the likelihood of receiving a Gold medal can be statistically explained by chance alone.
Now, it should be noted that wine is not beer. Beer, made with multiple ingredients, is more like food. Poor oenophiles have only the very subtle differences between the flavor one batch of grapes produces in wine to another. You might be judging pinot noirs grown from grapes on adjacent properties. Beer, on the other hand, is made with different ingredients which even disagreeing judges can perceive and identify. (Cascade hops just don't taste the same as Saaz, and assessment aside, beer tasters can tell the difference.)

Still, the study is quite useful at highlighting how subjective taste is. Experience is potently persuasive, and if we think X tastes better than Y, we probably believe in our experience quite strongly. In an existential sense, that's fine: we can't drink scholarly research papers, so we should drink whatever we happen to enjoy in the moment. On the other hand, we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that our strong experience of quality makes it so. We take in subtle information that we don't even appreciate (yes, including price), and our "experience" of the wine--or beer--is an admixture of observation, expectation, and perception. But it's not a fixed, accurate representation of some external thing.

The world, alas, is neither fixed nor entirely external. Our assessment of it is hopeless confused by myriad subtle interactions, many of which we aren't even aware of. Charlie Papazian, the sage, had it right the first time: "Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew."

*In the denser language of the report: "Thus, in binomial terminology, if the probability of receiving a Gold medal in a single competition is equal to 0.09, the expected number of Gold medals to be obtained in five competitions is almost identical to the observed frequency. For the 375 wines entered in five competitions, one would expect by chance alone (for p = 0.09), 234 wines receiving no Golds, 116 receiving a Gold in just one competition, 23 receiving Golds in two competitions, two receiving Golds in three competitions and no wine receiving Golds in more than three competitions. The observed frequencies closely mirror these numbers."

1 comment:

  1. I've often found myself thinking that medals for many beers are more statistics or chance, and less representative of the beers quality. After all, winning a medal often means your the best of the beers entered, not a great beer.

    This also comes from personal experience. The first and only homebrew contest I've entered thus far I won 1st in my category. Strangely though my beer scored as a mid range beer quality wise.

    Also there are many festivals throughout the world throughout the year and winning one medal in one competition out of a dozen entered seems to be nothing special. Especially ifthat festival doesn't include many brewers from your region.