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Training Your Tastes - Beverage Sampling in New York

[ NEW YORK, NY - NYC - 7/9/2001 - www.Littleviews.com ]

>>  In my article, Wine Tasting, I discuss where you can attend wine tasting events, alone or with friends, at prices ranging from free to over $200. In this article, I'll share tips that can help you make more sense of your wine tasting experiences based on what I learned as a professional beer and beverage taster for Schlitz Brewery, which once thrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

When you sample wines or other beverages without the benefit of simultaneous snacks or a decent meal, your perception about what you're drinking can get distorted way before you begin to get drunk! A lot of that distortion depends on what was in your mouth just prior to sampling.

Tart drinks often taste fabulous, but there's a catch. If you sample something sweet before tasting something tart, the contrast can make the sweet product taste sweeter and the tart one, awful.

Marketing people use taste tests to triumph over a competitor when the spotlighted beverage is sweeter than the competition's. Even though the competition's beverages may be very popular, when directly compared to sweeter products, the tart ones will taste bad.

Often foods and beverages taste better when combined with one another than they do by themselves. Acidic, red wines, for example, are perfect with heavy, creamy meals and pasta; foods that might taste bland without the flavors introduced by the wine. When drunk alone, however, the acid in some heavy red wines can burn your tongue or give you indigestion.

Lighter white wines go better with lighter foods, such as fish, because the mild taste of the wine doesn't overwhelm other flavors. Combining light food with heavy wine might taste terrific, but your taste buds will respond first to the wine, then the food, rather than the other way around. Why? Liquid causes food breakdown (thinning) and this mixing process changes the properties of the food in your mouth.

Interestingly, a good dessert wine is best sipped with foods that are only mildly sweet, or not sweet at all. In this situation, sipping causes the wine to sweeten food much like adding sugar to the original ingredients. If your food is sweeter than the dessert wine, that wine ceases to be exciting. Conversely, if you don't mix sweet wines with food, some of those wines might end up tasting like syrup, even though with food, they are outstandingly delicious.

Professional beverage analysts and marketers evaluate their products objectively through scientific tasting panels. Among many things, people on these panels report distinct sensations on their tongues, rather than resort to subjective descriptions. Once this information is tallied, chemists and brewers can adjust fermenting processes or promote liquor-store tastings that are guaranteed to knock their competition off the shelf.

Here's how it's done: The main taste centers on our tongues sense sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavors. In the diagram, notice that bitter is sensed just before the tongue enters the throat. This is our gag center. When we sense something is too bitter, gagging keeps us from swilling it.

When you go to a tasting (or sample new beverages), note where on your tongue you feel sensations. Also note how those sensations change when the food is combined with the beverage.

By using some scientific observations yourself, you can learn faster by matching your tongue's physical sensations to subjective phrases like fruity, heavy, full and dry. You'll also learn which of your taste centers bring you the most pleasure!

Here are some things you can do at a tasting to help you better understand the beverages being served and your responses to them:

  • Smell the wine, then write out your impression. Learn what different ingredients smell like and how they set you up for the taste that follows.

  • Draw a small oval representing your tongue, then mark where you feel sensations as you sip. Also note whether tingling is present (that's acid affecting your skin), or whether the wine has effervescent characteristics. When the tasting event is over, look over all your notes and observe the sensory patterns you like best.

  • Jot down the seminar leader's description of the wine (fruity, heavy, etc.) and associate them with your physical impressions.

For more information on taste, visit:

OK, now that you understand the scientific undertone to wine tasting, let's deal with an equally important issue: "Should you drink the samples or spit them out?" I vote for drinking, especially if you like the samples. I also vote for ignoring the samples you don't like (or having a designated driver if you like everything).

If you are serious about sampling flavors, ask for very, very small portions so you can sip enough of them without getting drunk. In order to serve numerous bottles, some tasting events promote spitting excess samples into paper cups or communal buckets. This, unfortunately, invokes my gag reaction. I'd rather it wasn't done . . .

Questions? Comments?
Karen Little

Article and photo by Karen Little. First published on 7/9/2001. All rights reserved by www.Littleviews.com.

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