How To Taste Beer
Originally published May 19, 2010
While wandering around the Boonville Beer Festival last weekend, I overheard someone explaining the tongue map to an apparent newbie, loudly and with authority. If you’ve ever tasted anything critically and seriously, you’ve probably encountered the tongue map. Essentially, it explains how different tastes are experienced on different parts of your tongue.
According to the map, sweet is tasted at the tip of the tongue. Bitter is sensed in the back. On the sides toward the front, we taste salty and toward the back, sour flavor. And that’s been the conventional wisdom since the early 20th century. Unfortunately, it’s dead wrong.
How we taste
Taste, of course, is one of our five senses. Its formal name is actually “gustation.” It’s essentially a complex form of direct chemoreception, which detects trace amounts of chemical substances in food and drink. Our sense of smell works in similar ways. But the sensation of taste comes through taste buds located, primarily, on your tongue — the roof of your mouth, the inside of your cheeks, under the tongue and even the back of your throat have some too.
The average person has about 10,000 taste buds. Chickens, by contrast, have just 24. But many other animals have more than humans. Pigs, for example, have 15,000 taste buds; and cows a whopping 35,000. Surprisingly, catfish have nearly 300,000, including some on the outside of their bodies.
Although there are taste buds all over your tongue, the buds in the middle are not used in tasting, forming a kind of dead zone. All tasting is done around the edges. And that brings us back to the tongue map.
The original map was based on research by a German scientist, D.P. Hanig, who published his initial findings in 1901. But the variations he found that led to the tongue map that persists to this day, were largely subjective and insignificant. Later research continued to misconstrue Hanig’s findings, despite findings from 1974 on refuting his work. Here, touch the tip of your tongue to salt. Does it taste salty? Surprisingly, scientists ignored what was quite literally on the tip of their tongue for nearly a century.
What scientists now understand is that while there are variations in how the tongue perceives taste, these differences are nearly meaningless. All the tastes can be detected, nearly equally, anywhere there are taste buds.
The traditional taste sensations comprise a famous foursome — salty, sour, sweet and bitter — but a fifth was also identified over a century ago by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda. He called it “umami,” and it is common in many Asian dishes. It’s the savory taste in bacon, Roquefort cheese and soy sauce. Early 20th century western scientists, knowing little about Asian cuisine, simply ignored Ikeda’s findings. But recent research has uncovered the receptors in the taste buds and confirmed umami’s existence as the fifth basic taste.
Additional new research points toward a sixth basic flavor component: fat. First suggested in the 16th century, the theory was discarded because fat was considered a carrier for other flavors, creating mouthfeel and texture, but with no flavors of its own. But emerging science seems to confirm that fat may be a basic flavor, after all. Fatty acids have long been known to beer-tasters. Autolyzed yeast (in a sense, salted yeast) can produce flavors that are reminiscent of lard. Anheuser-Busch even came up with its own name for this flavor: labox.
Beer tasting today
Set aside that old school tongue map. It turns out that the traditional method of beer tasting still works: swirl a sip inside your mouth, so that all the areas of your tongue come in contact with the beer. It forces you to fully taste every aspect of the beer’s flavors, and assures that it’s in your mouth long enough to assess its mouthfeel and finish, too.
Most importantly, unlike wine tasting, in which samples are often spit out, beer should still be swallowed. Receptors at the back of the throat convey the aftertaste, or finish, of the beer — the flavors that persist when the beer is no longer in contact with the taste buds. This lingering finish and the mostly bitter components that comprise it are an integral part of the overall taste profile of beer.