November 30, 2007
I came across this post by Doug a while ago, and have meant to comment on it for quite some time. While his post is largely a question of whether there can truly be a wine “expert”, since there is subjectivity to taste, the key that I saw was this quoted passage from his source article:
What these experiments neatly demonstrate is that the taste of a wine, like the taste of everything, is not merely the sum of our inputs, and cannot be solved in a bottom-up fashion. It cannot be deduced by beginning with our simplest sensations and extrapolating upwards. When we taste a wine, we aren’t simply tasting the wine. This is because what we experience is not what we sense. Rather, experience is what happens when our senses are interpreted by our subjective brain, which brings to the moment its entire library of personal memories and idiosyncratic desires.
What got me thinking about this was an experience I had at the Great American Beer Festival in October. One of the “need to try” things on my list was the Samuel Adams Utopias, a beer unlike any other I’ve tried. At 27% ABV, it’s strong, and due to the way it’s brewed and packaged, it’s a still (uncarbonated) beer. So I stood in line at the Sam Adams booth, I pushed my way up front, I got my 1 ounce taster, and I hated it. I couldn’t stand to even drink the stuff. I simply though it sucked.
But an interesting thing happened. I got a chance to try the very same beer at a beer/food pairing event the next day. Instead of being in a loud convention hall, I was in a nice quiet restaurant. Instead of pushing through hordes of people to get my glass filled, I was seated comfortably chatting with fellow beer lovers. And when I tasted the Utopias, suddenly it had changed. Of course, it hadn’t changed a bit, but I was in a completely different frame of mind when I got the chance to taste it. Suddenly it tasted great! It seemed (as is intended) as a perfect end to a nice meal. Sweet and complex, with a definite “beer” character that you don’t find in a brandy (as it does have hops), but not overpowering or harsh, as I had thought before. When I had a chance to sit down and drink it slowly, I was able to appreciate the subtle flavors inherent in the beer rather than simply feel the warmth in my stomach that something so high in alcohol will bring.
The beer which I had decided merely a day earlier that I’d never buy a bottle of (it’s well over $100 for a bottle, so it is a difficult decision) now seemed like something that might be a good thing to keep for special occasions. And I might end up doing that, as it has just hit its 2007 release here in California.
But it proves that a lot more goes into the taste of anything than simply its ingredients. Much of what we taste is due to what we’ve brought to the table within ourselves.
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