Beer Syndicate Blog

You Don’t Have to Be a Supertaster to Be a Good Judge of Beer

A few drinks ago, I was Netflix-surfing and stumbled across an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Here’s the setup: Guinan, the ship’s quasi-bartender played by Whoopi Goldberg, was combining a glass filled with a blue liquid and another glass filled with a yellow liquid into a fresh glass. [Spoiler alert: the drink turned green.]   Data, the ship’s super-knowledgeable (albeit naïve) android, walks into the bar (stop me if you’ve heard this one)…

GUINAN: Hello, Data. Would you like to try something new? It’s a concoction I heard about on Prakal II. I think it’s wonderful but I need a second opinion.

[Data takes a sip.]

DATA: Eighty-seven percent Saurian Brandy. Targ milk and Danisian mead comprise the rest. There is an unusually high concentration of fructose compounds and monosaccharaides.

GUINAN: Too sweet?

Now, I’ve heard of “supertasters” before, but to be able to pick out that a beverage has both targ milk and Danisian mead?  That’s what I call a supertaster!

Tomfoolery aside, we can actually learn a thing or two about how to be a good beer judge from Data, the most super-est of hypothetical supertasters.

For example, did you notice how Data was only listing the constituent parts of the beverage but not making any statements regarding his personal taste?  Well, Data being the non-human, non-emotional android that he is doesn’t need food to survive, but more importantly he can neither like nor dislike anything.  He can only analyze food, but not technically enjoy it.

In other words, even though Data possesses a sense of taste, perhaps a sense of taste far superior to any human, he does not express any personal taste.

So no matter what your level of beer judging expertise is, here’s the takeaway:

  1. When we talk about “taste”, we should distinguish between “personal taste” and the physiological “sense of taste”. Personal taste refers to someone’s private criteria for liking or disliking something, whereas the sense of taste refers to one’s ability to identify features of an object using the tongue in conjunction with smell and the trigeminal nerve which is the nerve responsible for providing sensory impressions of texture (mouthfeel) and temperature.

This is important because beer judges in the U.S. take a more objective approach when evaluating a beer by focusing on judging beer according to a uniform set of predetermined beer style definitions, and not judging according to “personal taste” (like or dislike), which should be kept to a minimum.

  1. One must have experience with a range of foods and other relevant sense-data memories coupled with the ability to recall those experiences for comparative or identifying purposes. Case in point, Data would not have been able to identify Saurian Brandy, targ milk, and Danisian mead had he not already had sufficient knowledge and/or experience of them and had the ability to recall those experiences. When it comes to beer, it’s important that the judge has carefully tasted at least a few excellent examples of the style of beer he/she is judging, and, equally important, understands what criteria needs to be met in order to qualify a given sample of beer as a “good” (or poor) example of the style it’s claimed to be.

This experiential condition suggests that “tasting” is a learned ability, which implies that one can learn to be a “supertaster”.  Well, sort of.

Origins of the Supertaster

Remember, I’m trying to convince you that you don’t have to be a supertaster to be a good beer judge.  In order to do that, we’re going to have to talk a little bit about what a supertaster is (and what it’s not), and also how being a supertaster could be considered a disadvantage when it comes to judging beer.

The term “supertaster” originally appeared in print in the early 1990s in an article by experimental psychologist Linda Bartoshuk in the trade journal Food Technology.  Basically, the term “supertaster” was used to describe a specific subset of people in an experiment who perceived a compound called 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) to be intensely bitter (relative to salt) while others did not.

Those who found PROP to be intensely bitter exhibited two other particular characteristics:

  1. They “perceived stronger tastes from a variety of bitter and sweet substances, and perceive more burn from oral irritants (alcohol and capsaicin),” and
  2. They had comparatively more fungiform papillae (the little bumps that house the taste buds) on the anterior tongue (the front two-thirds of the tongue).

In other words, according to the original definition, if you perceive PROP to be intensely bitter, then you’re a supertaster.   Those who perceived PROP as bitter, but not intensely bitter are called medium tasters (normal tasters), and those who did not perceive PROP to be bitter at all are called non-tasters.

Straightforward enough.

But it’s not just that supertasters perceive flavors more intensely.

Further experiments showed that supertasters also display greater chemosensory acuity, meaning that supertasters are able to detect smaller variations in ingredient levels.

With all of these enhanced tasting abilities, why wouldn’t a supertaster be the perfect beer judge, or any other type of food judge for that matter?

The Case Against Supertasters as Good Beer Judges
(The Supertaster-Effect)

Let’s start with a simple question.  If a supertaster perceives certain tastes at an intensified, perhaps exaggerated, level, how then would this person be able to accurately describe the balance of a beer, or fairly judge the appropriate level of alcohol, sweetness, spiciness (as with capsaicin in chili beers), or bitterness of any beer?  That is to say, if a “normal” taster perceives the bitterness of an American pale ale to be around 35-40 IBUs, the supertaster may perceive that same level of bitterness to be much, much higher and therefore incorrectly judge the American pale ale to be excessively bitter and not “to style”. (Not surprisingly, some supertasters reportedly do not enjoy bitter beers.)

Speaking of bitterness, if you look at what flavors supertasters are said to be able to perceive more intensely than other people, it’s particularly bitterness and sweetness. Although bitterness and sweetness are important components in virtually all styles of beer, there are clearly a variety of other flavors found in beer.  And even though the kind of supertasters we’ve discussed thus far (PROP-sensitive supertasters)  are hypersensitive to bitterness and sweetness, it’s not clear how intensely (or not) such supertasters interpret other tastes like sourness, saltiness, and umami, which may lead to misjudging all of the other flavor components in a given beer, especially when describing the balance of those flavors.

So it’s not just that supertasters might over exaggerate the amount of bitterness in a beer, they might also potentially downplay the level of say sourness in a Lambic or Berliner Weisse, taking points off for the beer lacking the requisite level of sourness and so forth.

Now, if the supertaster phenomenon only affected a very small percentage of the population, we probably wouldn’t be talking about any of this with respect to judging beer.  However, most estimates suggest that 25% of the population are supertasters, which might cause some worry on the scoresheets for those brewers who just happen to have a couple of supertasters judging their beer.

But before we hit the panic button and question the validity of the whole enterprise of beer judging itself including any beer ribbons or medals awarded, let’s clear up one little ambiguity about supertasters.

Who You Callin’ a Supertaster?!?

To be fair, it’s misleading to think of a supertaster as someone who has a superior sense of taste if by superior we mean something like “refined” or “exceptionally accurate” as was implied when suggesting that Data is a supertaster in the example above.   The “super” in supertaster denotes someone who perceives certain tastes more intensely than others, sometimes unpleasantly so, which presents the kind of problems we’ve been discussing with respect to supertasters not being good (accurate) beer judges.

So even though we may think of someone like Data who has a super (exceptionally accurate) sense of taste to be a supertaster, this is not the same as someone who we would consider to be a supertaster as the word is largely intended.

And since the supertaster phenomenon seems to very closely correspond to the presence of at least one particular gene (TAS2R38), if it is purely genetic, in a strict sense you can’t really learn to be a supertaster.  However, as I and others maintain, supertaster or not, you can learn to develop and refine your pallet to become an exceptionally accurate beer judge… Perhaps even a super-judge.

But going back to the original premise of this article [you don’t have to be a supertaster to be a good beer judge], you can now see how it’s actually pretty easy to make a case against supertasters being good beer judges assuming we’re on the same page about what a supertaster is.

And even if we throw in that extra feature regarding a supertaster’s general ability to detect smaller variations in ingredient levels in food, it still doesn’t change the fact that the defining feature of supertasters is that they perceive certain flavors more intensely than others which may also potentially include other tastes besides bitterness and sweetness, which means all the previously mentioned critiques against supertasters being good (accurate) beer judges remain.

Of course if the purpose of a certain beer experiment is to determine if there is a detectable difference between two beer samples, then a supertaster would likely have a distinct advantage.  Not only that, in such experiments, if the detection threshold of the subjects had not been assessed, then the resulting data could very well be skewed, which is why most oral chemosensation [taste] experiments include as part of their design a method for identifying and accounting for non-tasters, medium tasters, and supertasters (or some other similar classification).  Again, this doesn’t affect beer competitions as much because those beers are judged individually with respect to specific style guidelines.

But even though the sole purpose of a beer judging competition isn’t to detect minute differences in two beer samples, we’re still left with the sticky question of whether or not unidentified supertasters who perceive some tastes more intensely are negatively impacting the reliability of beer judging as a whole.

So let’s talk briefly about how beer competitions work starting with homebrew competitions, then commercial beer.

Read more…


BJCP to the Rescue?

The BJCP, or Beer Judge Certification Program, is a program that was created back in 1985 with the purpose of (among other things) developing standardized tools, methods, and processes for the structured evaluation, ranking and feedback of beer, mead, and cider.

The vast majority of homebrew competitions in the U.S. are “BJCP sanctioned” meaning that they follow certain BJCP practices and style guidelines for judging beer.

To become a BJCP judge, one must pass an online entrance exam and also a tasting exam.

So does the BJCP exam weed out supertasters?

Maybe.  Maybe not.

As mentioned, there are only two parts to the BJCP exam: the entrance exam and the tasting exam.  Being successful on the entrance portion of the exam is essentially a matter of demonstrating that you can sufficiently recall BJCP study material.  Supertasters would not be identified or weeded out by this.

Assuming you pass the entrance exam, you proceed on to the tasting exam.  The tasting portion focuses on evaluating six beers according to the BJCP style guidelines, pointing out flaws, and giving feedback which often consists of suggestions on how to correct a detected flaw.

In theory, if a supertaster were to get weeded out, it would most likely be from the tasting exam.  However, depending on how intense the supertaster perceives certain flavors and if those flavors presented themselves in any of the beers evaluated in the exam, the supertaster may slip by.  What’s more is that depending on the individual supertaster, she/he may be able to more easily and accurately pick out any number of off-flavors which may in fact boost her/his score.  And simply including a bitter beer in the taste test lineup doesn’t necessarily screen out supertasters either as some supertasters reportedly enjoy IPAs which suggests that “cultural and environmental factors have at least as much or more influence on food preferences [as] genetics”.

But here’s the best part about BJCP sanctioned beer competitions: since it’s not required that a beer be judged by an actual BJCP judge, there is an even greater chance that a supertaster has avoided any screening process whatsoever and is sitting squarely at the judging table with another judge of unknown credentials.

The situation for commercial beer competitions such as in the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is even worse.  These beers are judged according to the GABF style guidelines by industry professionals, not BJCP judges or any other sort of otherwise qualified judge (although some judges might happen by chance to be BJCP judges), so the likelihood of a supertaster sitting at the judging table is potentially higher.

But do we really want to weed out supertasters, or simply account for them?

Confronting the Supertaster-Effect

Currently, the BJCP doesn’t formally attempt to identify supertasters, however when a particular beer is being judged, if the scores vary too much, then usually the judges will self-police and adjust scores after discussing why the score should be lower or higher.  The problem with this method is that if the people judging a given beer were supertasters, then there may be no score correction made.  And unlike mass public beer rating systems like ratebeer or beeradvocate, beer judging competitions consist of a much smaller sample size of “judges” (often only two people per beer), and therefore are more vulnerable to the supertaster-effect.

Here are a few possible solutions:

The PROP Solution: If supertasters were identified as part of the judge certification process, then the scores generated by a supertaster could be adjusted according to some predetermined schema.  Using the PROP test to identify supertasters is probably the easiest, most common approach, and at about $5 per test, it’s cost-effective as well.

Certainly the PROP test and even the very definition of “supertaster” has been criticized for only identifying bitter/sweet hypersensitive supertasters and not more general supertasters who are sensitive to other tastes like sourness, saltiness, and umami.

Another critique stems from the idea that according to the original definition, supertasters were identified as having more taste buds than others, however further research demonstrated that there is no correlation between the density of taste buds and being a supertaster.  This might suggest that being a supertaster isn’t simply a matter of the number of taste buds one has, but rather if the taster has the gene (or genes) that cause the taste buds to perceive PROP as intensely bitter.  However this is more a critique against a rigid definition, not against the use of PROP as an effective solution in identifying supertasters.

It’s also noted that there have been other non-PROP methods used to identify people with supertaster-like attributes, which is why some have suggested using the term “hyperguesia to refer to people with a “broadly tuned heightened taste response”.  Others point out that about 5% of non-tasters actually perceive PROP as bitter meaning that the PROP test produces false positives roughly 5% of the time.

All critiques against the PROP test withstanding, no other widely-adopted practical field test has been developed that offers the same cost-benefit and ease of use that the PROP test does in identifying supertasters or those with heightened taste response.

The Taste-Correspondence Solution: In a perfect world, all beer judges would already have a wide breadth of academic and practical tasting experience with respect to whichever style of beer they are judging regardless if they are a supertaster or not, however this is not always the case.  As such, we can attempt to adjust for the supertaster’s relatively exaggerated perception of some tastes by making it a requirement that all prospective judges sample a number of predetermined commercial examples (calibration beers) that epitomize the style of beer being judge and use those exemplar beers as the ideal standard and submit corresponding tasting notes.  So even though a supertaster might personally find an America pale ale to be intolerably bitter, as long as the pale ale being judged shares common characteristics that correspond to a range of predetermined and documented exemplar beers, then the relatively exaggerated perception is mitigated.

The BJCP does provide a list of good commercial examples of the various beer styles, but does not require proof that any such beers have been sampled.  Arguably, it would be advisable for prospective judges to actually have sampled good examples of all beer styles, but not doing so would not necessarily prevent anyone from passing the tasting component of the exam.

One possible problem with this approach is that it would seem that the main focus in such a competition would be to determine how closely a given beer corresponds to a predetermined ideal commercial example(s), and not whether the beer being judged is intrinsically superior.  In other words, we are assuming that the ideal commercial example is the absolute best example of the style (however that is to be determined), and therefore even if we are presented with a beer that better represents the style than the commercial example, we may never score it as such.  The other obvious problem is placing a supertaster in a category that doesn’t have a predetermined exemplar such as the Specialty or Fruit Beer categories.  The possible solution there is to exclude supertasters from such categories.

The Continued Training Solution: As with sports, being able to perform at peak condition as a beer judge requires continual training in the form of carefully evaluating beer on a regular basis.  And while the supertaster phenomenon may be purely genetic, studies have suggested that nurture can compensate for some of the tasting genes one is dealt.

Although we haven’t discussed the sense of smell much with respect to supertasters, aroma is certainly a critical factor in judging beer [aroma is the second most weighted category affecting a beer’s score on the BJCP beer scoresheet right after flavor].  With respect to the sense of smell and genetics, at least one study reported that explicit sensory training improved the olfactory sensitivity of wine experts, while others have pointed out that after repeated practice smelling various aromas, even people with a reduced ability to pick out certain odors (odor-specific hyposmia) showed improved sensitivity to aromas.

Even if no similar study of improved taste acuity exists, there are arguably just as many if not more aromas found in beer as wine, so such aroma training should benefit beer judges as well.  Of course if we assume that what worked with the smell improvement study carries over to taste, then repeated practice tasting certain flavors or even styles of beer would improve taste acuity.  To take it a step further, I’d advocate for not just repeated practice (weekly or biweekly) tasting and smelling beer, but careful repeated practice tasting and smelling beer.

By “careful” I mean focused attention is paid when tasting beer, noting at least the factors as spelled out on the BJCP Beer Scoresheet.  Now, you don’t need to use the actual BJCP scoresheet itself, just as long as you are noting (writing) what you detect which could also be in conjunction with use of a beer flavor wheel.

A Quick Note about Non-Tasters

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about supertasters, who again are said to make up about 25% of the population.  “Normal”, or “medium”, tasters make up 50%, but seeing as how “non-tasters” make up the other 25%, should we be concerned about non-taster beer judges?  By the way, “non-tasters” are generally defined as those who almost never perceive PROP to be bitter at all (and never perceive a related compound called PTC to be bitter) and have relatively few taste buds (although this is being reconsidered), and therefore have a relatively muted sense of taste.  A fast and hard intuitive response would look something like this: with respect to homebrew competitions, non-tasters would more likely be weeded out via the tasting portion of the BJCP exam which suggests non-tasters represent only a small percentage as judges in homebrew competitions.  Similarly, we probably wouldn’t find many non-tasters at the commercial beer judging table as that group is made up of industry professionals (presumably brewers), and the market would have arguably reduced the number of those non-tasters.

Final Thoughts

Will the BJCP or any other organization that confers some sort of fancy tasting title to people ever institute some method to account for the supertaster phenomenon?  Only time will tell.

In the meantime, the next time you sense something a little off with your score sheets, you might just have a supertaster to thank.


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Hi, I’m Dan: Beer Editor for Beer Syndicate, Beer and Drinking Blogger, Gold Medal-Winning Homebrewer, Beer Reviewer, AHA Member, Beer Judge, Shameless Beer Promoter, and Beer Traveler.  Interests? Beer.

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