Tongue Ownership Syndrome


With many years and many beers under my belt, not to mention a conscious effort to refine both my palate and sniffer, I feel as though I have a pretty good sense of what is and what isn’t, where taste is concerned in a beer. (Or in cookies, for that matter; don’t you hate when people use margarine in cookies?)

I’ve also spent many years observing people, both professionally and unprofessionally.

Melding my years and powers of observation, I’ve found that, right or wrong, people are very possessive of their taste buds, whether or not their buds know squat diddly or whether or not their buds are very, very dull. And I should be quick to point out that just because one’s taste buds are dull (some folks prefer cheap tequila because [not that they all realize it] it is harsh and “taste-able”) or as-yet-untapped, that doesn’t mean that they themselves are dull (or dumb). Though sometimes the stars align against a person, and they are both dumb and poor tasters.

Since the senses of smell and taste are so very connected, I’ll need for you to consider them both as one melded union as I refer generally herein to taste and tongue.

On Beer and Salsa

Of course, I’ve been paying attention to beer tasters, both experienced and inexperienced, for many years, encouraging them to expand their horizons. For the last eight months, I’ve been serving up a variety of tasty salsas at our restaurant,  and it’s been interesting watching people’s reactions. And annoying at times.

The ThinkerWhat I’ve tuned into is threshold. Threshold is much like a belly button. Everyone has one, and they are very different.

When folks walk in the door, we bring them fresh chips and a mild House Salsa. We purposely made this one with modest heat for the masses. If people want something hotter, they only have to ask. Some people find the House Salsa blazing hot, while I’ve watched two year olds slurp it down like the milk after a bowl of Cheerios.

And then there are all our other salsas that rotate every day or two. It’s generally not my intent to melt anybody’s face off, unless they ask for it, so none of them are terribly hot. Instead, I’ve taken great pains to make them nuanced in many different ways, some highlighting spanking freshness, some highlighting grilled elements, some with a whole different set of spices toasted lightly, some spanked with vinegar, some massaged with lime, some with red wine reductions, some blah, blah, blah.

If there’s a bit of heat, we warn people so they can decline. If it’s Hot Lips Houlihan, we warn all but the bravest to back away from the table.

Regardless, people are all over the place with what they think is hot. The heatseekers, as I call them, fit into three categories. The first is those that simply love a solid smack of heat now and again. The second group simply can’t taste the heat in even the hottest of preparations. The third group likes to see how high up the fire hydrant they can pee.

I like the first group. My judgment on the second group depends on their attitude: I can think of one lady I detest. I’m not really bothered by the third group, because I just pee further up the hydrant.

What some don’t understand is that you can always add more, but you can’t take it away. Sorta like a hop bomb gone awry. Or a spruce beer gone awry. Or a beer that’s kicked up the fusels. Or a beer that gets toward cloying.

Like salsa, where beer is concerned, we all have our preferences–and our thresholds. I really groove on roastiness, The Sourness, Belgianesque phenols, and forward maltiness. But I can appreciate them all. I tend not to drink a lot of IPAs, but I don’t badmouth them, unless they are lousy in some determinable way. My friend Dave is the king of picking up diacetyl. I’m finding lately that I’m sensitive to sulphury notes. And I’m not really into rye beers. In some beers diacetyl or sulphur is appropriate. In rye beers, rye is appropriate.

Like I told my writing students so many years ago: “Don’t just say it sucks; tell me how it sucks and why it sucks and how it could keep from sucking.”

That sentiment boils down to attitude and credibility. It’s both fine and dandy to own your tastebuds, and delight in them. It’s obnoxious to be so un-self-aware as to think everyone tastes and smells what you do. They don’t. Some won’t pick up certain aromas or catch certain flavors. I know a guy who was in a serious car crash who can’t smell anything. Others can really pick apart the complexity. Neither person should be a jerk.

If you have a bad attitude, you undermine your credibility. I may not trust your judgment. I may not want to hang around you. Like those that scoff at too hot, or too cool, a salsa, there are a good many beer reviewers out there that are quick to point out that a beer sucks, without offering any reasons why, or constructive criticism. They are owning their tongue and there brilliance, and it often comes off poorly. It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between preference and problematic.

Tongue Ownership Syndrome, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. Being obnoxious is. As I do from time to time, I’d like you to take a look inward and decide if you own your buds good, or you own your buds bad.

Funny though: in a culture so inundated with new potato chip, soda and whatnot flavors so prevalent, and the sheep so quick to jump on the next big thing, why are they so attached to their tastebuds when it comes to beer or heat?

What if you never tried chocolate?!?!

Owning your buds without allowing an adventurous spirit leaves out new discoveries. Personally, my life would suck (and here’s how) without good coffee, fresh garlic and Good Beer. What was my life before fresh ginger? How did I function before Moroccan tagine? Before frybread? Before baklava?

Sorry, I turn to Mr. Digression-pants so easily when I think about flavors.

In summary, your tongue is something good. Lick something good.


For more of this Syndrome crap, click here.


3 Responses to Tongue Ownership Syndrome

  1. Bailey says:

    Great post.

    I never cease to be amazed by how people genuinely believe that there is such a thing as real objectivity in beer tasting and that their tastebuds are better than everyone elses.

    Clearly, some people are better at picking up flavours than others (Matthew Fort, for example, seems to be able to accurately identify mystery flavours 99% of the time).

    But when it comes down to whether you like a beer/salsa/sausage/whatever, your final judgement will always be affected by how your tastebuds are calibrated; by the context in which its consumed; and by a whole raft of weird cultural prejudices each of us carries around with us.

    Speaking of tastebud calibration, this is a fascinating post from Appellation Beer:

  2. Wilson says:

    I’m in the Relentless Thirst’s camp, having simply gotten tired of the constant barrage of hops. Specifically certain kinds. I guess I put myself on sabbatical. It helped to lay off for a while, as I certainly enjoy a good IPA from time to time.

    Tastebud Calibration is a good term to use.

  3. Adam says:

    I’m catching up on my blog reading, sorry for the months-later response. (this diatribe is timeless anyways) love the thoughtfulness and reflections on tasting and agree whole-heartedly. This summer was my exploration of flavors through mustards, bbq sauces and salsas. (I’ve still got to make it to the E.B. restaurant sometime) What a fun learning experience. I wanted to piggy-back on the theories and approaches by discussing tasting order. If you’ve ever been to a BJCP beer tasting, there is thought to what order one judges beer, this is so we don’t over stimulate the tongue with one particular facet, like hop bitterness. I get frustrated with my contemporaries during two situations. 1) “give me the hottest salsa you got…yum, that’s great, now I’ll try the $6 bottle of Belgian beer you have.” 2) “beerfest! rock on! I’m going to try all the IPA’s first and then work my way back to the boring cream ales, brown, kolschs and continental lagers.” After I point out that impulses and instincts may want to drive us towards our “happy tastes”, I stress that if we want to enjoy the tasting session, we should apply some common sense. Of course for all I know these are the same people who read a mystery book and go straight to the back page to learn “who dunnit”. I’ll stick with my mild (but flavorful) salsas, mustards, bbq sauces, beer and work my way up to the big dogs at the end of the evening/session.

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