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Monday, March 12, 2012

On Flavor

It seems like the world operates on a freaky kind of synchronicity such that when I am thinking deeply about a subject, it seems like others are, too. More likely, it's just that I happen to notice when other people are talking about the same things I've been thinking.

Today's synchronicity: flavor. Let us begin with a wonderful book published in December called Neurogastronomy by Gordon Shepherd. Shepherd is neurobiologist at the Yale School of Medicine and an oenophile foodie. This book collects together the scientific thinking to date on the way humans process and construct flavor from what turns out to be a staggering variety of inputs. (Shorter Shepherd: flavor is mostly retronasal smell, humans have evolved, perhaps uniquely to appreciate flavor--we're born foodies--and our sense of flavor is modified by emotional cues, color, hunger, and mood. Our brains are highly evolved to detect and process scent, and it's inaccurate to think of this sense as subservient to sight.)

Every well-read beer geek should have a dozen or so titles in her collection like Tasting Beer, Brewing With Wheat, Amber, Gold and Black, Good Beer Guide to Belgium, and so on. I would place Neurogastronomy on this short list.

On cue, Alan McLeod broaches the topic from another angle, taking the idea of food and beer pairings to task:
One of the main reasons I don't like the idea of matching and pairing is that everything pretty goes with pretty much everything else in the right combination.
This is less a declaration than a paradox: how can everything go with everything else in the right combination? They are interchangeable or they require the right combinations, seems like. But never mind. What's more interesting is the resulting discussion thread, which includes our own Ben Edmunds, and you should go have a look.

Food and beer pairings are my white whale, a topic I intend to pursue maniacally in the coming year. I harbor the idea that it's possible to come up with a system that allows diners to select appropriate beers for their meals. I further harbor the idea that the key has nothing to do with styles and everything to do with flavor elements in beer. Texture, effervescence, attenuation, strength, and taste/scent compounds--somehow these should line up with food flavors. It will never be as simple a prescription as red-wine-with-red-meat (at least a partial fraud, by the way), but it could at least be consistent. Maybe.


  1. Many times lately I feel the same as you do. It seems that many of us are thinking along the same wavelengths.

  2. I choose the beer I want to drink most off of the taplist/menu, and then select the dish I want to eat most off of the menu. It's simple and always works for me. I've never had a problem with the beer making the meal worse or vice versa.

  3. Shepherd goes into how we're fooled into thinking "taste" occurs in the mouth when so much occurs retronasally - and when you think about most our descriptors they are aroma terms. However, much of what you describe - texture, effervescence, attenuation - does take place in the mouth itself.

    I only bring this up to point out that it adds a layer of complexity, because what happens in the nose takes a different route through the brain than anything else we sense. I think you have quite a challenge ahead.

  4. Jeff, let me know when you get around to explaining why ESB is terrible with Mexican food, while IPA seems to pair well.

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  5. >It seems like the world operates on a freaky kind of synchronicity such that when I am thinking deeply about a subject, it seems like others are, too.

    I think this is a clear case of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon in action. The most common example is when you learn a new word and suddenly you see/read/hear that word occurring all over the place, or when you buy a new car and suddenly begin to notice how many vehicles from the same model are on the road.

  6. Oh dear. To what end? Making the easy complex out of some duty? If the effort were worthwhile there would be armies of depressed beer fans made glum by the failings of their mouths.

    You may as well study what beer goes with which hat.

  7. Stan, I'm dumb enough to think it will be fun. But I'll do probably what you'd do: talk to experts and reconnoiter.

    Soggy, this is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. "Mexican food" is a bit broad to guess, but the superficially similar, hoppy ales you cite aren't that similar when you start matching them with food. Probably effervescence and maltiness have something to do with it.

    Anon--interesting! And indeed, I think "artifact of perception" is my guess, too.

    Alan, we'll have to smile and disagree on this one. Anyway, I'll smile.

  8. You can smile at whatever you like and, sure, it is a hobby but this amateur scientist, flavour expert proclamation has a weird and by no means personal to you aspect that has its perils. The rush over the last 2-3 to suggest increased complexity therefore difficulty therefore consultancies around good beer is a strange and largely pointless phenomena.

    Go ahead. Prove me wrong. Many have. But watching the movement you have hitched your wagon to is a head scratcher for sure. Maybe these are the circumstances you require to maximize your appreciation. Do you treat other subject matters similarly?

  9. Alan, I'm not tracking your critique here. I have an interest in the way food and beer flavors interact, but I'm not aware of any movement. I have personally just experienced some sublime combinations and would like to understand why they are sublime and have some sense of how to achieve them myself.

    I don't get why this is such a deplorable interest.

  10. You want to crack the code so you can more easily predict incredible pairings? Sounds grand, if difficult. Good luck!

  11. Who said weird is deplorable?