A holistic approach to sensory

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A serious problem that people experience when first delving into sensory is one of self-realization. Beverage industries – primarily the wine and whisky industries – have established a mystique around sensory, implying that a good palate is the result of some God-given birth right while at the same time giving their Master Blender, Master Sommelier, or cellar man credence by acknowledging the twenty years they’ve spent working in the industry.

This image projection is ridiculous when you think about it. If these people really do have stellar palates, they wouldn’t need the experience to be there in the first place. It is a marketing ploy to profess the value of the product to the uneducated masses: ‘This person has an incredible palate but s/he chooses to work at this distillery, serve this wine, brew our beer.’

Some people may have ‘better’ palates than others, genetically, but the force which people fail to contend with is that these people start off in the same boat as everyone else, tasting a product for the first time, and it is training and practice more than anything else that makes a taster exceptional. Just as in Rocky montages, the work and dedication that sensory experts put into their craft is neatly forgotten or glossed over in the marketing campaigns with which we are familiar. As a result of this, the number of friends, acquaintances, and strangers I speak with who stick their nose into a glass, think for two seconds and then tell me ‘I don’t have the palate; I can’t do this’ is astonishing. What they fail to realize is in asking them what they taste or smell, I’m not asking them to prove anything. Sensory is not a pissing contest to see who knows ingredients or process better, and the fact that it has been transformed into an arena where supposed ‘experts’ are undisputed even though they often have not been objectively tested or validated on their abilities is a travesty. There are two things that I say to these more casual drinkers:

  • Of course you can’t do this on a technical level, you haven’t been trained
  • That does not mean you have a worse palate than those who have been trained, nor does it mean that you cannot recognize smells or tastes

Just with anything, in entering into sensory, people need to come to terms with their own inhibitions and goals. First you acknowledge what you are looking to achieve, then you objectively assess whether you can achieve it at the moment, then you identify the skills you need to develop in order to achieve those goals, then you pursue that development with an open mind to method and opinion.

As with most professions and pursuits, not everyone has the drive or desire to perform the above analysis and development of their sensory abilities. It is, therefore, hardly any wonder why winemakers, brewers, chefs, coffee blenders, and distillers of demonstrable skill and experience are often considered to be exceptional tasters in their own right: they have done the leg work, tasted raw ingredients, good experiments, bad experiments, and seen how their respective markets react to each one.

The value of extensive and continuous experimentation should not be ignored. I have heard those in the whisky industry explain that a good way to expand your abilities is by going to the supermarket and smelling every piece of fresh produce available to you. You can hardly expect to be invited to cook on Masterchef without having touched a pan before. From a personal perspective, I spent the better part of two years brewing new recipes and cooking with unfamiliar ingredients – this is without mentioning the hundreds of solitary nights I have spent alone with a bottle of beer assessing it in terms of style and personal preference.

But the reality is that while the knowledge and experience gained from such pursuits may be valuable, it cannot be considered the end-all-be-all of sensory training. Comparing drinks to fruits and vegetables is useful in training yourself to communicate your experience more effectively, or even spark conversation in a bar, but it is not specific enough to be able to dig into the root of the matter to provide value beyond that.

As an example, I am a big fan of German wheat beers, especially Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier. A common flavour attribute of these beers is ‘isoamyl acetate’ which often reminds people of bananas, circus peanuts, sometimes even bubble gum. (Right there we have the problem of a common language, as how would an ‘untrained’ individual know that their bubble gum flavour is the same as their friend’s banana flavour?) Because I regularly drink hefeweizens, because I’d brewed them, because I eat bananas, and because I had focused on yeast ester production during my studies at Heriot-Watt University, I was convinced that I could identify this compound from a mile away.

The compound that I was unsure about, however, was acetaldehyde – often considered to have characteristics of green apples or emulsion paint. While I was home brewing I was continuously worried about my fermentation procedures, and as a result I would self-assess my beers very critically, with fermentation flaws being at the forefront of my mind. A number of batches I believed to have been improperly brewed, attributing their mismatched flavour profile to acetaldehyde, despite the fact that I really didn’t know what acetaldehyde tasted like (even though I’ve eaten plenty of green apples in my time).

A year later, after specific and technical flavour training, I realized that many of those batches which I thought to have acetaldehyde really just contained an overabundance of isoamyl acetate; quantities far and above what you would ever find in a hefeweizen. While this was indeed representative of improper fermentation practices, it was for different reasons than acetaldehyde production.

Whether I would have discovered this without specific flavour training will forever be an unanswered question, but there is no doubt in my mind that it would have taken me a lot longer to figure out the distinction, primarily because I would have automatically discounted isoamyl acetate as a possible option.

And so we come full circle to self-realization: I thought I had the skills that would allow me to troubleshoot my brewing process, but it wasn’t until I adopted and pursued a new training methodology that I was able to understand my own deficiencies and then improve on them. My fallibility is hardly unique, but how many ‘experts’ are so convinced of their own knowledge and abilities that they fail to entertain alternate options? Whether or not you look to train with flavour standards or with more rudimentary (read ‘supermarket’) materials, the reality is that no amount of bananas will teach you humility, especially when the market (and maybe even your own executives) are expecting you to profess the opposite.

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