1. The First Taste
When asking people about their first experience with beer, many admit that they did not enjoy it. To understand why, we need to examine how our taste buds react to different flavors.
Flavors can be classified into five groups: sweet, sour, salty, savory (also known as umami), and bitter. Both beer and coffee fall into the bitter category.
Our taste buds are designed to respond to these different flavor types. They send signals to our brain stem through nerves, informing it of what we are consuming.
Bitter flavors act as a warning sign to our brain, as they are associated with toxins. Most substances that are toxic to us taste bitter, and our bodies have a natural aversion to them, known as the “bitter rejection response.”
So, if beer tastes bitter, and our bodies interpret bitterness as a potential threat, how did it become so popular?
2. Genes And Taste Preferences
Let’s delve deeper into our taste buds. They are highly sophisticated when it comes to detecting bitterness, with 25 different taste receptors dedicated to this flavor. In contrast, there are only two taste receptors for saltiness.
In beer, bitterness comes from hops, which contain alpha and beta acids, as well as small amounts of ethanol. These substances bind to three taste receptors, signaling the presence of a highly bitter drink.
Due to the abundance of bitter taste receptors, there is room for genetic variation. Just as our genes determine eye or hair color, they can also influence how strongly our taste buds react to the bitterness of beer. One study even identified a specific bitterness receptor gene associated with this.
But it doesn’t end there. Our taste buds also have separate receptors for cold sensation. The carbonation in beer activates these receptors, similar to how minty toothpaste does.
Again, our genes determine how we react to this sensation. Some individuals may find the cold sensation unpleasant. Combined with the bitterness of hops, this can make the experience of drinking beer less enjoyable for them.
All these factors explain why some people dislike beer to the extent that they never want to try it again, while others go on to develop a love for it.
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3. Food Pairings with Beer
The role of food in appreciating beer goes beyond providing something to absorb the alcohol. It can also influence how we perceive the flavor.
As mentioned earlier, the acids and ethanol in beer activate the bitterness receptors on our taste buds. However, these signals can be overwhelmed by other, more pronounced flavors.
Sweet and salty flavors, in particular, can help mask the bitterness of beer. That’s why salted peanuts are a popular bar snack.
By reducing the bitter taste, these flavors can also help us identify and enjoy the more subtle flavors present in different beers.
On the other hand, beer can enhance the taste of certain foods. Foods rich in protein and fat, such as juicy burgers or cheese-laden pizzas, can be balanced by the flavors of beer.
In addition, beer stimulates the production of gastric acid, aiding digestion by breaking down food in the stomach. Therefore, a bottle of beer can actually assist in digesting a cheesy pizza.
4. Mood Enhancement
We know that alcohol affects our emotions and can act as a depressant. However, beer has additional ways of influencing our feelings, even in non-alcoholic versions.
In a 2013 study conducted by the Indiana University School of Medicine, male volunteers were given small samples of beer, and their brain activity was monitored as they consumed it.
The study found that beer triggered a release of dopamine in the brain, a chemical associated with experiencing pleasure. Even with minimal alcohol content, the taste of beer produced a dopamine high.
In other words, beer can make us feel good, even without the influence of alcohol. However, genetics also play a role in this phenomenon.
Some participants in the study had close relatives with a history of alcohol dependency. These individuals experienced a stronger dopamine response to the taste of beer compared to those without such a family history.
For some people, beer can induce positive emotions and create a desire to drink more, regardless of their personal taste preferences or the level of alcohol consumed.
5. Stimulating Creativity
There is evidence suggesting that low levels of alcohol consumption can enhance creativity. As beer usually contains lower alcohol content, enjoying a single beer may boost creative thinking.
In a 2017 Austrian study, volunteers were given either a bottle of regular beer or a bottle of non-alcoholic beer. The group that consumed regular beer performed better in creative tasks.
Therefore, having a beer before a brainstorming session may facilitate idea generation. However, it’s important to note that alcohol can impair focus and concentration. The study concluded that the creativity-enhancing effect disappears when consuming more than two bottles of beer.
6. Beer and Culture
Some argue that our palates adjust to the types of food and drinks we are accustomed to. In Western diets, for example, sweet foods are prevalent, making the bitterness of beer initially unappealing.
However, social pressure to drink often overrides the unpleasant taste. Many people continue to drink beer even if they don’t enjoy it, and sometimes this leads to their first hangover.
If beer is associated with sociability and good times with friends, even an initially distasteful flavor may not deter some individuals. There is a massive marketing industry focused on promoting beer as an essential part of socializing.
Beer marketing is a significant business, with major brands investing substantial amounts of money every year.
Given the immense effort to encourage us to drink beer, it’s not surprising that a little bitterness is insufficient to counteract this Herculean campaign.
7. A Variety of Flavors
If you strongly dislike the bitter taste of beer, trying a different type likely won’t change your opinion. However, for those who are more receptive to bitterness, there is a wide array of beer styles to explore.
The best way to determine your preference is to sample various kinds of beer. You may come across the term “IBU” (International Bitterness Units) when reading beer descriptions. However, the IBU alone does not fully indicate how you will perceive the beer’s flavor.
IBU measures a specific aspect of beer, namely the amount of polyphenols and isomerized/oxidized alpha acids present. These substances contribute to bitterness, but they can also interact with other ingredients, affecting the overall taste.
IBU measurements are mainly useful for brewers, ensuring consistency in different batches. To find a beer that suits your taste, your own taste buds are the most reliable tools.