Do our palates change over time?

Do our palates change over time?

Written by Oliver Coningham on 24 February 2016 in Beer Tasting

Richard Taylor of The Beer Cast published a thought-provoking article entitled Smoked Out examining whether we need to try every beer style and if there are some that we will never truly enjoy, no matter how hard we try.

In his example Richard questions his enjoyment of Rauchbier, the German smoked beer. It's a personal favourite of mine with smoky, peaty flavours upfront followed by oak and a caramel sweetness. It's an interesting beer for vegans too as is portrayed by many as tasting similar to smoked ham or a bacon sandwich. It is said that a few years ago a reporter from the Chicago Tribune described Schlenkerla smoked beer as perfect for vegetarians who miss the meat flavour as its smokiness reminds many people of ham!

Maybe there are some beer styles we're destined not to like, but is it worth regularly revisiting styles as palates change and develop over time?

When I initially tried Rodenbach Grand Cru - a Flanders Red style of beer - back in December 2014, I hated it. The check-in on Untapped read: "Tasted like vinegar, followed by cider. Not good". I tried to return it to the bar with little success and instead settled for a slightly more palatable Rodenbach Rosso. 

Move forward a year to the Sour Beer Festival at Small Bar in Bristol as part of Bristol Beer Week and I find myself sitting outside with a glass of Rodenbach Grand Cru in hand. The mahogany hued liquid shimmering in the last of the autumn sunshine. The unease of my previous experience still fresh, I want to prove myself wrong. This time things were different. Pouring a dark, woody brown there's an aroma of red apples, oak and vanilla. Red apple comes first in the taste with some woody, perhaps oak-like notes. Honey, vanilla and balsamic add layers of depth to the finish.

Perhaps it's more than just about the taste...

What changed in the space of a year? Could it be similar to the dislike of certain flavours that many have from childhood? Often an aversion to unusual flavours - olives and parsnips for example - stay with us long into adulthood. Perhaps it's more than just about the taste... There will be certain flavours that are associated with how well the beer has been kept and how fresh it may be, but these off-flavours are becoming harder to identify as beer styles become more experimental. Think of the metallic, iron-like flavours in Beavertown's Heavy Water produced from the combination of salt and sour cherries. The metallic note would be seen as an off-flavour in any other beer, but here it works beautifully.

Education and exposure to different flavours will influence how we perceive certain tastes. Our likes and dislikes evolve over time. In the case of the Rodenbach Grand Cru, when I originally tried it I wasn't overly familiar with the style of beer. Since that original encounter I have sampled many different styles of what can loosely be categorised as sour beer; from the World-class Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic to Wild Beer's Beyond Modus. Each individual beer teaching me something new and allowing a greater understanding of these distinctive flavours.

External factors inform our perception of taste almost as much as our taste buds themselves. So much depends on the environment we were in when we had that drink, who we with or how we were feeling. A pint of crystal clear, golden lager savoured in a beer garden graced with sunshine will taste very different on a cold winter's day beside a log fire. It may however taste equally as wonderful if it conjures up images of the former.

The answer to the original question is yes; our palates do change over time. It is by exposing ourselves to different flavours and beer styles that we can further increase our enjoyment of them. And that, after all, is what it is all about. 

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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