Monday, 24 May 2010

Style, Sight, Reputation and the Perception of Taste

If you give me a US IPA, and you tell me exactly what style it is, then my brain triggers an expectation of taste. If you give me a beer, but don’t tell me what it is, and I see that it’s chestnut brown with a thin head, then I can almost taste it before I actually raise the glass to my lips – it’ll be bready, a little toffee, maybe some earthy, English hops, right? If you give me a bottle and don’t tell me the style but the tasting note says ‘rich chocolate flavour, roasted fruit and a bitter finish’ then I know what to expect when I drink it. And if you gave me a bottle of Dark Lord/Westvleteren 12/Pliny the Younger then I can guess roughly what it’ll taste like flavour-wise and I also expect it to be incredible, thanks to its stellar reputation. But how much do these – knowing the style, colour, tasting notes and reputation – affect the actual perception of taste?

To try and get a better understanding I asked Lauren to choose any two beers from the cupboard. No restrictions, apart from a couple which were 750ml or some strong specials - there were about 50 bottles to choose from ranging from lagers, through pale ales up to big stouts, from all over the world. She then put them in the fridge for an hour and banned me from looking until after I’d tasted them both.

Part of me expected to be almost stupefied by not knowing the beer/style in my hand, as if the senses of smell and taste would be rendered useless. At the same time I wondered if not seeing them would intensify my ability to smell and taste. Also, I was worried that I’d get them entirely wrong, proving that I can’t actually taste anything...

As you can see from the video I didn’t do too bad. I got the strength and colour of the first beer – Mikkeller’s GIPA, which I fail miserably at trying to pronounce – picking out earthy, peppery citrus but confusing it with something a little bretty and sour (it wasn’t sour, just bitter, lemony and fruity from the hefty use of German hops). Taking the blindfold off and drinking it again seemed to make it taste different, as if the flavour was suddenly amplified. The second beer - Viven Porter - I managed to get the colour straight away from the roasted aroma but the easy-drinking quality of it made me think it was a low abv beer when it fact it was 7%. Again when I drank this without the blindfold it suddenly tasted different; stronger and generally bigger. I’m pretty sure my perception of these beers changed as soon as I knew what I was drinking, which I guess confirms the idea that knowing what beer is in your glass does affect the way it tastes.

The mind tricks in clever ways so I wanted to see how well I can smell and taste without anything influencing it. The selection group was small, which may have affected me (I knew I had a bottle of mild in the cupboard and as soon as I tasted the dark beer I thought it was that), so maybe next time I need to do it at a beer festival where there are hundreds of beers to choose from. I also think that next time I will be more objective and know what to expect of a test like this, perhaps taking more time to think about the actual qualities of each, rather than speedily sniffing and sipping just to get to the big reveal of what I’m drinking. The use of all the senses of important and I sped past them eagerly.

The test was far from scientific, but an interesting look at perception and the senses. I want to try it again soon and it’ll be interesting to see how I do with a couple of British ales. The other idea, inspired by Chunk, is to get Lauren to choose any bottle of beer from the supermarket without me knowing and then pour it out and see how I get on. As experiments go, this one has got my brain ticking in many ways, raising questions about packaging being able to influence the taste of something, as well as reputation and style. 

Have you attempted a similar blind tasting exercise? If so, how did you get on? 

I think there’s so much more to this idea than just this post and I find the whole concept of taste and perception fascinating. The only trouble is that I look like a right twat with that mask on. I've also just realised that the way I have the page set up cuts off half the video, thankfully it's the half in which nothing happens, but if you want to watch it in glorious (hazy) widescreen then you can see it here.


  1. A brave thing to share with us and pleasingly honest. I think I would goin to panic mode and start to imagine all sorts of non-existent flavours.

  2. That's a good experiment! I've done a fair few blind tastings with flights of similar style beers, but not completely blind.

    You're dead right, packaging, perception and expectations can really influence how you taste a beer, even if it is only in subtle ways. It's one reason I try to explain to my German colleagues what to expect before they taste something like a mega US-hoppy IPA, as those kinds of flavours just don't compute as normal beer here. Am I playing with their perceptions? I certainly hope so! :D

    Very impressed that you can still swirl the crap out of your glass while blindfolded :D

  3. You may have to hand your geek card in Dredgie. Bottled Pliny The Younger? A real geek would know it's draft only... ;-)

  4. I've read a fair bit of research into this and I used to work with some of the larger brewers. It is true that people "drink with their eyes" and once you remove the visual cues (packaging, branding, tasting notes, colour, etc) the results can be very interesting with lagers being described as ales and vice versa. Similar things happen in blind tastings with food where flavours are even more pronounced so it's no surprise that beer with all it's subtelties throws up some interesting descriptions. As soon as people are able to see what they are drinking then the whole thing changes. The importance of marketing I'm afraid.

  5. Barry, I can swirl like a king, blindfolded or not. I'm just grateful I didn't snort up a massive noseful of beer when sniffing it!! Playing with perceptions is exactly what it is. It's the same with wine - subtle semantic choices and it just sounds better. Refreshing, crisp, bold - they all mean different things, while the tasting notes give you something to expect.

    Sid, touche! However, I am of course talking about a hand-bottled PtY ;)

    Robert, it's a really interesting topic and I've been reading more pieces about it today. It's also making me want to try different experiments with taste.

    This is a blog I've read today, pointed to me by Tom @WBandBeer - It's a really interesting look at things with a wine link (plus it confirms that wine buffs know nothing anyway - it's because they spit it all out, fools!

  6. Really interesting reading! In Sweden, where I'm blogging (, I try to make people more interested in doing reviews of beer blindfolded. I'm quite sure that people tend to be over-optimistic or having high expectations when they know what they are up to. At the blindfolded tastings that I arrange, people can still see what the beer looks like but they don't know the style, brewery or origin. They just have to trust their own senses. In August I'm actually doing "the Largest blindfolded Beer-tasting in Sweden", 100 people tasting 10 different beers from Swedish micro-breweries. Cheers, and thanks for a good article.

  7. Nice blindfold.

    And don't try to say it's Lauren's either.

  8. nice blind fold mate!!

    i did a blind tasting with 3 ipa's a few weeks ago, it's something i want to do more of as it takes a lot of the pre conceptions out of play.

  9. Hand-bottled into a Panda Pop bottle? ;-)

  10. Inspired by your post I conducted my own blind tasting on my blog over here in Sweden. You can see how I got on here:

    I think I just about got away with it......