“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” a classic circular conversation that can be applied to tasting a beer. Which has more importance: taste v. aroma?
The answer: both.
How do I know? It’s my job to help make “sense” of beer flavor.
Consider your tongue a tasting device. The taste buds send signals to your brain and let you know what you are sensing. There are 5 basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. The sensation, umami, is a savory or mouth-watering sensation.
All other flavor sensations result from the sense of smell. Have you ever noticed that when you have a cold eating isn’t as much fun? You almost can’t taste the food. This is because your nose is stuffed and you’ve lost your sense of smell! So when your beer’s aroma doesn’t (positively) stimulate your senses during the evaluation process, chances are your palate will agree.
Here’s a little test to show you what I mean. Grab a Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat. Take a sip from the bottle and notice how the rich cherry flavor permeates your senses. Now, pour it into a pint glass, plug your nose, and take another sip. Hold it in your mouth and think about what you taste. Now unplug your nose and you should perceive distinct cherry fruitiness, perhaps with a hint of honey. Was the experience different from your first taste? I’ll make the safe bet that it was.
Fancy lab equipment not required. We humans can tell the difference between 10,000 different odors. But often it is difficult to quickly and accurately name the aromas. People who are trained to recognize odors are not necessarily any more sensitive with their nose – they are just better at retrieving names of smells from memory and have a common language for describing what they smell.
While dogs can be 10,000 times more sensitive to odors than humans, an individual human olfactory receptor is no less sensitive than a dog’s. What makes dogs so sensitive? Dogs just have a hundred times the number of receptors as we do.
So part of my job is to help everyone here understand aromas and be able to reliably recall them with a common language. All of this helps us ensure we ship only the best possible beer.
Every batch we send still needs Jim’s sniff & sip of approval. That’s right, to this day, Jim still insists on tasting every batch.
Please feel free to leave a comment with any questions you may have around what we do here in the sensory lab… we’d be happy to help answer them!
Annette Fritsch, manager of Sensory, Research, and Development at Samuel Adams, helped edit this post. She is responsible for all sensory done at The Boston Beer Co., including quality assurance, product development and research. She also leads the technical and scientific team which focuses on research and new product development out of the Boston location. Annette obtained her master’s from Oregon State University in the Brewing Laboratory and is the sensory committee chair for the American Society of Brewing Chemists. She enjoys yoga, rock climbing, and welding in her free time.