Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Evolution of Taste

I recently read somewhere, a blog or twitter feed, a beer taster's arc. Beer drinkers move from mass market brews through to hop bombs and then back to simple brews. I have heard this observation before and it got me to thinking, are there parallels in other tastes?

The coffee drink starts with Tim Horton's and the double double, gradually moving into espresso and dark roasted brews of Starbucks and then ends up with medium and mild roast of independent baristas.

Food has a few of these parallels and maybe one for each of the basic tastes; sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury. I would add spiciness, as in capsaicin, as another dimension. For instance, sweetness moves to this sickly sweet place and most people move back to a simpler dessert such as a simple cake or pie.


I don't know. I have a few conjectures, though. One is habituation. If you keep tasting or smelling something for a long time, eventually you begin not to notice it. It is a  evolutionary trait that allows us to be able to smell through something to ensure that we are not missing anything such as danger. If any of you have changed enough diapers, you know what I am talking about.

Along with habituation, there is also an addictive type or tasting where we want to taste more of that thing that we like. Let's call it extremism. We keep trying to push the boundaries to have the hoppiest beer or the spiciest chicken wing. At some point, we reach the physical limit of taste. The 80-100 IBU units is often thought as a natural limit to be able to taste differences. Many people believe that at some point of the Scoville scale which measures spiciness, that there is no additional burn but that the flavour of the peppers themselves is different.

Another is taste differentiation. Not its real term but I have spent too much time on the internet trying to figure it out. The idea is that if you are given two closely related tastes you will begin to prefer one over the other. There is some thinking that this is also evolutionary, that in order to ensure that we get the best nutritive content, we prefer one food over another. Of course, this is where nature and nurture begin to raise its head in the discussion but we'll pat it and it will go back to sleep.

Another dimension that I want to touch on here is physical change. As you age, your ability to smell becomes hampered. Although the sense of smell and its physical structure are one of the senses that regenerate, there is a limit to its regeneration. This is a polite way of saying you get old. As you get older, the ability to taste these nuanced flavours disappear and you loose interest in the food. Funny, as you get older and begin to loose your sight, you dress in brighter clothes.

The last one I want to discuss here is experiential. As we go to the extremes and back, we begin to notice subtle differences. As Jordan St. John put recently, as a beer writer, you eventually begin to understand what makes good beer. It is not that you go back to simpler beer but that you can taste the flaws in bad beer or poorly made food. There is an appreciation for the technique of cooking vegetables well or making a lager that doesn't taste crappy.

A sign of a great chef is what they can do with an omelet or to put another way, how simplistic their food appears. When you are eating a plate of meat and two veg, it takes a lot to wow a diner. To be able to be considered great, the simple nuanced food, coffee or beer has to taste great against others in the same category. There is something marvelous in the idea that we go through the simple stage twice, once on the way up and then on the way back down. We don't know what we have until its gone but with taste, we get a second chance to appreciate it.

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