February 27, 2024

The Science of Taste

I read an article from a colleague in the wine industry recently that lamented the state of the American palate. He was basically frustrated by the desire to have everything big, rich, fat, salty and sweet. He, of course, is not from the United States, so he didn’t grow up eating McDonald’s and drinking Coca-Cola.

It got me thinking though about how little the average person understands when it comes to flavor and taste. I experience this on a regular basis with customers that can’t identify, or explain, the basic flavors in the foods they eat. So, let’s look at some of the basics of flavor and explain why certain things taste the way they do in the world of beverages.

Sugar and Sweetness

The first thing you have to look at when it comes to flavor is sugar and sweetness. I would expect everyone to know that sugar is sweet. What most people don’t know is that sugar is a mask that covers all flaws. Sugar is a very sticky molecule that tends to bind to everything else. In doing so, it can increase the sensory threshold of other compounds by essentially binding them in a form you can no longer sense–in effect, reducing their concentration. Sweetness also tends to be an overpowering flavor sense that can dominate over others, or at least mute their character.

In terms of wine, you can take a rough, harsh, tannic wine and start adding sugar to it. You will eventually reach a point where you won’t necessarily sense the wine as being overtly sweet, but it will round off the flavor and hide the wine’s flaws. This is best seen in the recent trend of slightly sweet red table wines. To the average American palate these wines are seen as smooth. Serve them to someone sensitive to sugar, though, and they will tell you the wine is obviously sweet. Sweet, when done properly, can be a sublime beverage experience. Slightly sweet wines in particular pair well with spicy foods or many Asian dishes with complex and exotic flavors.


The next key flavor is sour. Fermented beverages will all have a sour element to their flavor as they are all acidic. The trick is to prevent the beverage from being so tart that sour is all you taste. The pH of a beverage will influence that. Take two solutions with the same amount of acidity but have one at a high pH and one at a low pH, the one with the low pH will taste more sour. The key essence of sour flavor, especially in wine, is that it’s a balance to natural sweetness. Sour without sweet tastes harsh. Sweet without sour tastes cloying and disgusting. Sour flavors literally are mouth-watering as you will secret saliva to water down the acidity. Sour keeps both beer and wine fresh and lively as its acids cleanse the palate from mouth coating fats and sugar. It also provides a crisp sensation that heightens your reception of other flavors. Look at all wines that are recommended as great food pairings and you will find a wine with a great balanced sour acidity.


Bitterness is the last key taste to mention, as saltiness is not common in most beverages. Bitterness to most people is unpleasant. The reason why is that most toxic and/or poisonous substances tend to have a bitter flavor. Bitterness in and of itself is not pleasant, and in most wines is a flaw from harsh tannin or phenolic extraction. In beer though, bitterness is a key element of the beverage. Whereas acidity is the primary balance in wine, bitterness is extracted from hops to balance the flavor of sweetness from malt in beer. IPA style beers are arguably the most popular in the craft beer market, and show off the flavor of bitterness.

A quick note has to be made to the flavor sense of umami. It’s a sense of proteinaceous compounds in solution that provides the savory essence of many foods. Fermented beverages typically have some level of umami, but its sensation is usually minor in comparison. It stands out in cheese though, and along with cheese’s saltiness rounds out the flavor senses when paired with beer or wine.


The key to understanding flavor is to learn how flavors balance and accentuate, or conflict with each other. The balance of sweet and sour or sweet and bitter for instance, or the conflict of sour and bitter together. The whole theory of food and beverage pairing revolves around accentuating flavors together. Learn the basics and you can match great tastes together with ease.

Drink responsibly.

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