New Study Reveals We Can Identify One Trillion Distinct Smells

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A new story in the Washington Post’s Health, Science & Environment section, entitled Human nose can detect at least 1 trillion odors — far more than thought, says study of smell, appears to upend conventional wisdom about the number of smells that humans can identify. The general number has been around 10,000 as long as I can remember. By contrast, we can see “a few million different colors” and our ears can take in around 340,000 different tones. So while smell used to be a lot farther down on the sensory spectrum, this study would appear to rocket our sense of smell to the front of the line. For beer lovers, that can’t be a surprise, because our nose conveys so much more about a beer than seeing or hearing it can, and not even tasting it comes close, as any person who’s had a head cold can tell you, after trying to taste a beer without a working sense of smell.

The study itself, Humans Can Discriminate More than 1 Trillion Olfactory Stimuli, will be published in the journal Science. Here’s the abstract:

Humans can discriminate several million different colors and almost half a million different tones, but the number of discriminable olfactory stimuli remains unknown. The lay and scientific literature typically claims that humans can discriminate 10,000 odors, but this number has never been empirically validated. We determined the resolution of the human sense of smell by testing the capacity of humans to discriminate odor mixtures with varying numbers of shared components. On the basis of the results of psychophysical testing, we calculated that humans can discriminate at least 1 trillion olfactory stimuli. This is far more than previous estimates of distinguishable olfactory stimuli. It demonstrates that the human olfactory system, with its hundreds of different olfactory receptors, far outperforms the other senses in the number of physically different stimuli it can discriminate.

It will be very interesting to see if further studies corroborate this finding, but frankly it makes a lot of sense (no pun intended).

Science also has a short interview with Andreas Keller, one of the scientists who worked on the study, where he explains some of the reasons his team thinks that their study has shown we’re capable of so many more aromas than previously thought.

For The Next Session, Write About Writing

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For our 86th Session, our host is Heather Vandenengel, the Beer Hobo. For her topic, she’s chosen Beer Journalism, in other words using your words to write about writing … beer writing, that is. She writes. “It’s time for a session of navel-gazing: I’d like to turn a critical eye on how the media cover the beer industry. And, for a broad definition, I’ll define media as newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, TV, books and radio.” Here’s what she’s looking for:

What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer? Are we advocates, critics, or storytellers? What stories are not getting told and what ones would you like to never hear about again? What’s your beer media diet? i.e. what publications/blogs/sites do you read to learn about industry? Are all beer journalists subhumans? Is beer journalism a tepid affair and/or a moribund endeavor? And if so, what can be done about it?

In the spirit of tipping the hat when someone gets it right, please also share a piece of beer writing or media you love–it doesn’t have to be recent, and it could be an article, podcast, video, book or ebook–and explain a bit about what makes it great. I’ll include links to those articles as well in my roundup for easy access reading.

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Here’s her instructions for participating:

  1. Write a blog and post it on or by Friday, April 4.
  2. Leave a comment [t]here with a link to your post.
  3. Check back on Monday, April 7 for a roundup of all the blog posts.

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Some of the earliest writing about beer, c. 3000-3100 BCE.

Beer In Film #75: Tour of Miller’s Milwaukee Brewery

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Today’s beer video is an interesting tour of the Miller Brewery in Milwaukee. Most of the tours I’ve taken have been with consumers, brewers or some mix of beer people, but this one was done by Industry Week, who’s mission is “Advancing the Business of Manufacturing.” They also put on an annual IW Best Plants Conference , with seminars and plant tours of local manufacturers. The 2008 conference included this Tour of the Miller Brewing Company’s Milwaukee Plant. As a result, it’s more focused on the manufacturing aspects if the brewery, which is pretty cool.

Beer In Film #74: How It’s Made — Wooden Barrels

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Today’s beer video is from the documentary series How It’s Made that runs on the Discovery Channel in Canada and Great Britain, and on the Science Channel in the U.S. How It’s Made has been running for 22 seasons, having debuted in 2001. Each half-hour show features around four roughly five-minute segments, so they’ve covered a lot over the course of 286 episodes so far. This show, about Wooden Barrels, was the first segment in episode 123, the 6th episode in Season 10.

Beer In Film #73: How It’s Made — Pewter Tankards

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Today’s beer video is from the documentary series How It’s Made that runs on the Discovery Channel in Canada and Great Britain, and on the Science Channel in the U.S. How It’s Made has been running for 22 seasons, having debuted in 2001. Each half-hour show features around four roughly five-minute segments, so they’ve covered a lot over the course of 286 episodes so far. This show, about Pewter Tankards, was the fourth segment in episode 226, the 5th episode in Season 18.

Beer In Film #72: How It’s Made — Aluminum Cans

brookston-film
Today’s beer video is from the documentary series How It’s Made that runs on the Discovery Channel in Canada and Great Britain, and on the Science Channel in the U.S. How It’s Made has been running for 22 seasons, having debuted in 2001. Each half-hour show features around four roughly five-minute segments, so they’ve covered a lot over the course of 286 episodes so far. This show, about Aluminum Cans, was the second segment in episode 23, the 10th episode in Season 2.

Beer In Film #71: How It’s Made — Beer Coasters

brookston-film
Today’s beer video is from the documentary series How It’s Made that runs on the Discovery Channel in Canada and Great Britain, and on the Science Channel in the U.S. How It’s Made has been running for 22 seasons, having debuted in 2001. Each half-hour show features around four roughly five-minute segments, so they’ve covered a lot over the course of 286 episodes so far. This show, about Beer Coasters, was the third segment in episode 274, the 1st episode in Season 22.

A Historical Look At English Drinking Habits

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This is an interesting report from the British Parliament, specifically from the Health Committee. It’s a memorandum by Dr. Phil Withington and Dr. Angela McShane entitled Fluctuations in English Drinking Habits: An Historical Overview.

The overview includes a chronology beginning around 1550 and discusses increases and decreases in alcohol consumption in five periods since then, which they summarize as follows below.

In terms of consumption (inevitably crudely measured at times) it can be seen that England experienced a significant rise and consolidation of drinking levels during the “early modern period” (1550-1750). Between 1550 and 1650 there was a commercialisation of “old world” production and distribution plus the introduction of tobacco. The 100 years after 1650 were in turn characterised by the assimilation of, and moral panics about, new commodities, in particular coffee and gin. In the following two hundred years, which coincided with industrialisation and massive increase in population, there was a marked decline in the consumption of alcohol. The post-industrial or post-modern era (post-1960) seems to have returned to the kind of trends in the early modern period: increased consumption—especially conspicuous and public consumption among certain sections of the population—facilitated by powerful business organisations that are extremely competent at managing their relationship with political authority.

The dense information about continuities, discontinuities and gender is fascinating reading, but takes time to digest. It’s still marinating in my brain. I’m especially intrigued by this statement. “The medical industry now has the technology, knowledge, and incentives (especially commercial) to identify and treat many of the biological consequences of alcoholic consumption. This is in definite contrast to previous centuries, when medicine was more likely to use alcohol as a treatment rather than cure its related maladies, and when the primary impact of medical practitioners was, it seems, to create, legitimise and/or popularise new kinds of intoxicants.” The memorandum also notes that “[i]ncreased female consumption of alcohol may go some way to explaining the increases in general consumption since the 1960s since half the population was tacitly barred from drinking before then.” So that would suggest that per capita consumption is actually falling if one of the primary reasons for an increase is essentially a twofold increase in the number of people consuming alcohol.

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As prohibitionists incessantly nip at the heels of drinkers, doing everything they can to curb consumption, I think it’s constructive look at the bigger picture. Patterns of consumption tend to ebb and flow, and are affected by a variety of factors: economic, social, legal, and others. So whenever some prohibitionist group claims their new law, or awareness campaign, or what have you, has caused consumption to go down — or more often claims whatever they’re proposing is necessary precisely to decrease peoples’ drinking — it’s important to remember that people have always enjoyed alcohol, and will continue to do so, and changing the laws merely changes those patterns, it doesn’t really effect much over the long haul. I wonder if anyone has taken a similar look at historical drinking patterns in America?