Violins and Beer

By now you have probably seen reports about a recent controlled study of violins.  Researchers were keen to find out if violinists could really tell the difference between classic violins (such as Stradivarius) and modern instruments.  The bottom line was that the participants could not consistently tell a difference, and in fact on average preferred the modern instrument.  It is difficult study to do, as you need to have both the instruments and musicians available in order to conduct the experiment, plus it is a bit of a trick to suitably blind the experiment.  Apparently the musicians were fitted with welding goggles, among other things, in order to prevent them from gaining clues about which instrument they were playing.

Studies similar to these have been conducted with wine drinkers.  Researchers have found putting cheap wine in expensive bottles improves the drinkers perception of the wine’s quality.  Adding red food coloring to white wine resulted in the tasters using flavor descriptors associated with red wine.

Which brings me to beer.

I have always noticed an interesting phenomena.  The more rare a beer is, the higher its rating seems to become.  Pliny the Elder and Westvleteren 12 are great examples.  I am sure they are excellent beers and much deserving of the praise they receive, but are their high ratings due to their superiority or their rarity?  I am pretty convinced it is the latter.

I have spent a fair amount of effort to improve my tasting skills.  As a former pipe smoker, I have probably damaged enough of my olfactory nerves that I will always be a bit hampered in this area.  But when I concentrate hard enough various beer flavors come through, and I can struggle and try and put those perceptions into words.  It is not an easy thing to do.  Yet sometimes when I read beer reviews, such as the  “Commercial Calibration” reviews in Zymurgy, my only thought is, “Really?”. You can pick out the kiwi and pear flavors?  My hat is off to you.

I would love to see a controlled scientific study on beer tasting.  I am quite sure we would find the biases and preconceptions of the taster brought to the fore, and again demonstrate that many the many differences we see are not in the world but the lens we view it through.

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