Palate Effects: My Problem with Beer Tasting

Nathan Gismot, November 10, 2014

One of my issues with beer tasting is that I’m not very good at one of its more fundamental aspects: objectivity. After all, I like beer. I root for beers to be great — to be the Next Big Thing in the world of craft beer, even. Also, drinking beer is just so much fun. Walking into a brewery or a tap room, having a conversation with the person behind the counter, making a selection, watching the pour... it’s an experience; and it’s one that is rife with all manner of positive, anticipatory feelings. Now, feelings are great, but they also incubate bias; they are the enemy of objectivity.

All that is plenty to contend with as it is, but the plot only thickens for me once the beer is served. I retain a modicum of clarity for my first several tastes, and can more or less get a bead on, and whip up a decent description of, the beer’s nose, feel, taste, and so forth. (If I’m feeling froggy I might even call upon the Muse to speculate on potential food pairings.)

Regardless of whether I liked the beer or not, I face a two-pronged obstacle by the time I’ve finished it. The first is the simple fact that I now have some quantity of alcohol in my system. While one beer isn’t enough to make me intoxicated, it is enough to induce more of those pesky “good times” feelings I mentioned earlier. In other words, before I even order my second beer, I have doubled down on the presence and impact of those enemies of objectivity, feelings.

The second obstacle is my palate. I’m not learned enough to speak to this in particular detail, but suffice to say that my palate is altered once I’ve consumed a beer—and this troubles me from the perspective of a would-be beer rater. Assume that I order a different type of beer for the second round. In that scenario, how do I account for my altered palate as I taste the new beer?

Granted, my palate isn’t always going to be neutral heading into my first beer. Maybe I chewed gum earlier, or had a gnarly sandwich, or haven’t eaten much, etc. Moreover, the tainted-palate scenario I described above is easily controlled for if I simply refrain from giving too much credence to my impressions of the second beer (and any subsequent beers). That doesn’t feel particularly efficient or practical, though: People are going to rate their second, third, fourth beers of the night.

I’ll open it up to you, then: Do you pay attention to “palate effects?” If so, how? Do you try to clean your palate in between beers? If so, what’s worked for you?

Nathan's on Twitter & Untapp'd @nategismot