Guac and beer

There’s this beer at Halo called Wit or Without. It’s a ginger lime witbier with smoked malts, and is drawing attention to an interesting phenomenon. Some people think it’s perfectly balanced, and it’s one of their favourite beers at the brewery (I’m in this camp). Others think it’s too ginger predominant. Others can’t taste the ginger. Others can’t taste the smoked malt. Others think it tastes like soap, even “fresh Band-Aid.” What is going on?

Flavour is a mixture of your senses, physiology and palate, based on what you’ve been exposed to, nostalgia and a bunch of other things. It’s different for everyone. Some people have ginger all the time, and some people have never tried coriander. Others know they hate it. When discussing flavours present in beer, there also needs to be a discussion around exposure. Exposure to certain flavours will change your appreciation of them.

“When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability.” – Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University who studies how the brain perceives smells.

Tastes can change (pretty rapidly) if you’ve just started getting into new kinds of food and drink. (Just think about the first time you had a sour or funky beer… did it lead you on a journey to sublime?) I find it intricately fascinating.

So, back to Wit or Without. Witbiers contain coriander seed. The same people who think coriander seed tastes like soap also think cilantro tastes like soap, since they are the same plant. Yes, some people are born to hate cilantro, as Hank Green explains:

However, studies suggest that your genes are not the be-all-and-end-all of defining what you like. You can work on it.

Is there an official test we can do to group people into tasting categories for beer? The closest thing I can think of is getting serious about beer through study. Doing an official beer tasting and testing course (like Prud’homme or Cicerone) can help you identify which flavours are present in specific types of beer, and hence emphasize your particular physiology or bias towards certain styles.

The solution: try more. Read more. Discuss more. Remain curious. Be an experimental hedonist.