I was reading a back issue of Smithsonian on a recent flight. It was the food issue and frankly, I was giving the magazine an honest test drive as my pre-reading impression was that it was probably going to be ‘too heady’ for a vacation flight and, worse yet, it might be fodder for the guy next to me to strike up a conversation. I was captivated by Tom Vanderbilt’s article, “Accounting for Taste’ because it explained why I hesitate to answer the question of “What’s your favorite beer?” While I do have a have a current favorite, I struggle with commitment because my taste seems to be a moving target. This article explained why we continually seek out more flavor as our tastes evolve.

In my case, my gateway beer was a stout so it was an easy jump to malty browns, winter warmers and dubbels/tripels. However, my move to hops was much more gradual as I was about six months behind my husband in acclimating to hop-forward beers. I would taste his IPA, make a face and then go back to my rock candy in a glass. However, a funny thing occurred along the way, the more I sampled IPAs the less bitter they seemed. Soon, I was ordering IPAs in the mid-range of 50 IBUs. So, what happened here?

According to psychologist, Robert Zajonic, I experienced the “exposure effect.” The mere repeated exposure to a stimulus is a sufficient condition for the enhancement of his/her attitude toward it… or… the more you try something, the more you’ll tend to like it. This effect can be applied to everything we experience with our senses (food, drink, art, music, etc.).

Another curiosity happened while I was drinking mid-range IPAs - I craved more hops. I started looking for a ‘hop-punch in the face’ and moved to IPAs with IBUs in the 90 range. Again, what happened?

Howard Moskowitz, a Harvard psychophysicist and food industry consultant explains it as follows, ‘When we learn to like more complex sensory responses upon repeated exposure, we tend to tire of simpler ones.’ In other words, simpler beer with a single identifiable flavor or, “salient sensory cue” may be pleasing at first be we quickly become bored and seek out increased stimuli.

This is why, as a beer geek, my interest is piqued when I’m offered a beer with unusual flavor combinations and why, as a home brewing hobbyist, the more combinations I try get my mind tweaking amalgamations of recipes. Physiologically, humans are wired to keep looking for bigger, better, faster, more (pardon the 4 Non Blondes reference). Combine that with the creative combinations coming from the craft beer industry, as well as home brewers, and it keeps beer geeks continually pushing their palates.

After all, what if the super limited release of the polyspecial IPA infused with asparagus pollen and shed rattle-snake hide that was pitched with yeasts derived from the coat of Canadian brown-bear while in heat really IS the best beer ever made? And, does that come in a taster?

Reference: Vanderbult, Tom. (2013) Accounting for Taste. Smithsonian. vol 44, no 3, 61-65.

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