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.


alex@ALLBEER said...

In the ALL BEER GUIDE I reference recent work by Tim Jacobs at Cardiff University (2007).
His research confirms that though ALL taste buds (there are 3 types) have receptors for all tastes, there are indeed zones of sensitivity which correspond roughly to the conventional tongue map.
This has been largely born out by my (unscientific) experience doing practical taste training for beer appreciation.

Baron Orm said...

I too picked up on the tongue map reference at the SIBA North judging, I suppose it's one of those theories that has been around for so long it doesn't matter how technically correct it is - _it just is_

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

Myth or not I think that to truly evaluate a beer at least some of it needs to be swallowed. When I am judging I usually swallow the first sip and then spit the rest. I have only ever met one other judge who does the same however.

There are those in the wine world who argue that wine should be swallowed.

Martyn Cornell said...

In any case the "traditional" tongue taste map ignores the "fifth taste", umami, which is definitely present in at least some strong stouts and strong ales, and possibly other beers as well.

As for swallowing, it certainly seems to me I get flavours and aromas in the swallow I don't get any other way, although I'm prepared to have it proved that I'm imagining things.

Today's "captcha" word - "worsest".

DJ said...

I was on the understanding that there are more bitter receptors on the back of the tongue so that is why we are more sensitive to the flavour, experience bears this out for me. Swallowing is also important because the olfactory receptors that run from the back of the throat to the nasal passage are essential for picking up aromas that aren't accepted by the nose alone.

Unknown said...

Great stuff. Your refreshingly sceptical (or, is that skeptical?) tone reminds me of the great H.L. Mencken at his acerbic best. Will be following from now on. And, by the way, any statements to the effect that people should always swallow their beer have always gone down well with me...