Tuesday 23 November 2010

A Myth Busted?

I am a skeptic.*

There's a lot of rubbish out there fighting for our brain-space and often, our money. It's astonishing how many people are willing to buy into the evidence-free claims of charlatans, quacks, paranormalists, conspiracy theorists and clergy.

Homeopoathy, chiropractic, reflexology, detoxReiki, ghosts, mediums, organic foodUFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, bio-dynamic agriculture, religion – I could go on for a very long time listing the things that appeal to the hard-of-thinking (e.g.  Prince Charles).

Many times over the years, in the world of beer, I have heard something that provokes my skepticism. It is an idea that is as widely believed and repeated as the myth that water goes down the plug-hole different directions in different hemispheres**. Two recent mentions pushed me over the edge into researching the subject ... well, Googling it. Pete Brown mentioned it on his blog (although the exact location escapes me for the moment), and Julian Grocock, Chief Executive of SIBA, mentioned it in his welcome speech to the judges at the recent Great Northern Beer Festival.

So, what is this great myth?

It's the idea that the tongue is divided into areas that detect different aspects of flavour: salt, sweet, bitter and sour. In our beer world the myth frequently manifests itself as the suggestion that bitterness is experienced at the back of the palate, and this (as claimed by Grocock) is why we must swallow when judging beer.

A bit of Googling revealed that I'm not the only tongue flavour detection skeptic in the world. In fact, the subject seems to have been done to death in the world of wine. There are many mentions of the myth on wine blogs and websites.

It seems the origin of this myth is a scientific paper by a German psychologist. In 1901 D.P. Hanig found that sensitivity to flavours varies across the tongue, but his his result was mistranslated as meaning that different areas of the tongue detect different flavours.

The myth was reinforced in 1942 by Harvard psychologist Edwin Boring [great name!] who analysed Hanig's raw data. Unfortunately his graphs were plotted in such a way that areas of lower sensitivity were were wrongly perceived as being areas of zero sensitivity.

The false tongue flavour-map started to appear in textbooks and the myth took hold.

The subject was visited afresh by Virginia Collings in 1974. Her paper confirmed that although there are areas of variable sensitivity on the tongue, the flavour map is a myth.

This raises the question why do when swallow when judging beer yet the wine world spits when tasting wine? My guess is that it's simply a question of strength. Most beer is weaker than most wine. We just don't get hammered by swallowing the amounts of beer we need to drink to experience sufficient flavour. Certainly a good gulp of beer can be particularly enjoyable, but is it necessary to fully experience the flavour? I think not. Treat with skepticism.

Some links:

* Increasingly, "sceptic" is being spelled as "skeptic" in the UK. Here and here, for instance.

** If you are thinking to yourself "that's true, isn't it?" you need to be more skeptical.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Organising a Beer Festival Judging

Although I've judged at many beer festivals and events I've never been chief judge.

Now that time has come.

The organisers have asked me first to define the categories. The festival is four months away and the brewers need cajoling into entering – and they need to know the categories.

Style and category definitions are often the source of bafflement, and sometimes argument amongst those involved. Tedious pedantic semantic arguments occur: "That beer's not a Strong Bitter, it's an Old Ale" etc. ad nauseum.

I'd like to keep the bickering to a minimum and get a pat on the back for my organisational flair – and I'd like your help in doing so.

What are your thoughts on what the categories should be for a British beer competition overwhelmingly dominated by cask ale?

Monday 1 November 2010

Nutts About Alcohol

I was going to attempt to write something about muddled thinking regarding drugs but I have little to add to this from one of my favourite non-beer blogs, Heresy Corner, so I haven't bothered.