Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Flavor Hedonics: Pleasure and the Physiology of Taste

'Have some wine,' the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. 'I don't see any wine,' she remarked.
'There isn't any,' said the March Hare.

Ever since Brillat-Savarin, at least, the phrase 'physiology of taste' has given double pleasure to those who savor the joys both of the palate and of the intellect. So I owe a debt of thanks to my learned colleague Monkeytoe for alerting me to the publication, at slate.com, of a three-part essay by Mike Steinberger entitled 'The Physiology of the Wine Critic.' (These posts are available at:
http://www.slate.com/id/2168762/ [part 1],
http://www.slate.com/id/2168768/ [part 2], and
http://www.slate.com/id/2168868/ [part 3].)

Now those who know me well, and/or have heard me hold forth on the issue, will know how strenuously opposed I am to the facile and frequent comparison between wine and tea: phrases like 'tea sommelier,' for example, irritate me immensely. The reason is that it implicitly -- or indeed explicitly -- places tea in a position subordinate to that of wine. (A notable exception to this baleful trend is my esteemed colleague and companion in the blogosphere, Phyll Sheng, whose blog Adventures in Tea and Wine strikes an elegant and judicious balance between the two, evaluating each (as the fancy strikes him) on its own merits -- and combining acuity and elegance in every case. No wonder he has been selected as a contributor to tching.com.)

So it may come as some surprise that I am now referring my readers to this triptych of essays by Steinberger. It is Corax himself, they may crow, that now perpetrates this comparison! In a way, they would be correct. Obliquely so, at least. But, gentle reader, perusal of Steinberger's posts will furnish you with a great deal of information about tasting generally -- and that is of use and interest, no matter what one is tasting.

Steinberger's essay raises a number of very provocative questions, including:
• Is your gustatory experience the same as mine? [The larger question would be: Is your sensory experience the same as mine? E.g., when I see and appreciate a particular red, or blue, do you perceive them, 'get' them, in the same way I do?]
• What is the relation of gustation [taste] to olfaction [smell]?
• What is the relation of both gustation and olfaction to other mental processes [such as expectation]?
• What are the physiological and genetic characteristics of the super-taster [a term coined in 1991 by Dr Linda Bartoshuk, then of the Yale School of Medicine]?
• Is it in fact to one's advantage to be a 'super-taster'?

One is not going to get answers to all of these right away, of course. But Steinberger learned quite a bit on his physiology-of-taste journey. He paid several visits to the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a non-profit independent scientific institute in Philadelphia that focuses its research primarily on the senses of taste and smell. There he met (and underwent some testing by) Dr Charles Wysocki, a psychobiologist who studies individual differences in human olfaction.

At the Monell Center and elsewhere, Steinberger learned, some of it to his surprise, that super-tasters, who account for perhaps 25% of the overall population, [a] have a very low threshold for sweetness, [b] tend to salt their food heavily, [c] 'do not particularly enjoy the flavor of alcohol,' [d] are especially sensitive to both astringency and acidity, [e] tend not to like spicy or fatty foods, and [f] 'tend to find all sorts of vegetables overly bitter.' As he points out, being a super-taster is perhaps no blessing when it comes to wine-tasting.

How about tea-tasting? One will doubtless discern the most minute nuances between one substance and another, but it sounds as though, for the super-taster, there is potential displeasure at every turn. And -- regardless of what other benefits (dietary, spiritual, cultural) one hopes to gain from tea -- don't all tea-drinkers look to tea for the pleasures of aroma and taste? In the case of tea-drinking particularly, one can imagine that the experience might sometimes be especially unpleasant for the super-taster as profiled above: many teas are astringent in quality, and the polyphenols found in tea are themselves acidic. As for bitterness: this brings to mind the West African proverb, 'Tea is bitter, like life.' Many teas have a bitter note (at least) to them, and that indeed is the drawing-card for some drinkers. But for super-tasters, it seems this may be a truly unpleasant aspect of the tea-drinking experience.

But not even super-tasting -- or the palate at all, per se -- are the end of the story here. 'Some people,' says Steinberger, 'are better at judging wines than others, but based on what I've learned, the reasons for this are more likely to be found in the brain than in either the nose or the mouth. (And interestingly, researchers have found that for experienced wine tasters, such as sommeliers, more areas of the brain are activated when tasting than is the case for inexperienced tasters.)' This should really come as no surprise to those who have been learning about the function and power of the human brain; but it is interesting to have some scrutiny focused specifically on 'flavor hedonics,' as Steinberger felicitously terms the study of the pleasures attendant on taste and smell.

One of the most interesting items that Steinberger learned about from Dr Wysocki is the work of Dr Frédéric Brochet, the proprietor of Ampelidae, a winery in the west of France. Brochet is an oenologist by training, not a cognitive psychologist as stated by Steinberger, and his research was awarded the Grand Prix by the Académie Amorim in 2001. Brochet's research refers to (though he did not, as Steinberger thinks, originate) the very useful notion of 'perceptive expectation,' a term apparently coined by one J. Bruner in 1950 (Brochet's online paper does not cite an exact reference for Bruner's work). 'The subject,' writes Brochet, 'perceives, in reality, what he or she has pre-perceived and finds it difficult to back away.'

This has really far-reaching implicataions for tea-drinking -- especially insofar as one tries very hard [a] to concentrate on what it is one is perceiving in one's cup, and [b] to communicate that to others. Even if the answer to 'Do you taste what I taste?' should be a confident 'Yes!,' how can I even be confident about what I myself am tasting? As Steinberger writes,
Brochet has shown that people given a white wine that has been dyed red will describe it exactly as they would a red wine. He has also found that if he serves the same wine in two different bottles, one labeled a cheap vin de table and the other a pricey grand cru, people invariably lavish praise on the latter and scorn the former .... Beyond all this, we know that the nose wields much more influence over our flavor perceptions than the tongue. And beyond all that, we know that our gustatory preferences are determined by a wide variety of factors, most of which have nothing to do with our physiological attributes. The key distinction here is between perceptions and preferences. We may be hard-wired to receive flavor stimuli in a certain way, but that information is immediately relayed to the brain, where it is processed through a variety of filters unrelated to our biological dispositions. Our preferences are formed mostly by experience, expectations, culture, and other intangibles.
At the end of the day, one can simply throw up one's hands in despair, and go have some tea (or not); but (if I may quote the ebullient Eleanor Roosevelt) 'It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.' Put in more specific tea-terms: we can at least do our best to focus thoughtfully on what is in our cup; to enjoy it to the fullest; to ponder (sometimes!) why and how it brings us that enjoyment; and then -- in a gesture toward the essence of shared living, the giving-and-taking of what is dearest and most important to us in this life -- to try and communicate all of that to others, and to consider the fascinating questions of whether and to what extent their experience matches our own.

And that, gentle reader, is why there is CHA DAO.


perpleXd said...

Wow, I loved this post. Rock on!

corax said...

> Wow, I loved this
> post. Rock on!

hey thanks! i just saw your own blog, and liked it too, so i'm going to add a link to it from CHA DAO ...

Michel said...

Yes, yes, yes!

or as we French say Mais OUI!

~ Phyll said...

Am also in the opinion that the term "tea sommelier" is a gross misnomer. There is also something inherently annoying when the term "terroir" is mentioned in a tea article with the sole purpose of connecting the splendors of tea with that of wine.

Thank you for the wonderful post and the kind comment, Professor!

corax said...

> Thank you for the wonderful
> post and the kind comment,
> Professor!

just telin' it like it is! :)

Anonymous said...

The comparison of tea to Western grape wine is quite a stretch, one that was suggested to me by an editor of a tea article I submitted to a fairly scholarly journal of Chinese art history. I was initially irked by the idea that tea in the Ming dynasty was anything like red wine in the 21st century. But as I thought about the history of tea I realized that among the Chinese literati there had comfortably existed drinkers of both tea and fermented rice wine and that a poet might compose encomia to tea or wine, perhaps not in the same song but certainly with a similar devotion and appreciation.

corax said...

i'm grateful for your observation here, and [as far as it goes] i agree with it entirely. indeed, in the monumental chinese novel DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER -- to take one important example -- it's arguable that wine plays a more exalted socio-alimentary role than tea; and there are more frequent references to wine-drinking there than to tea-drinking.

the source of my irritation, in the tea/wine equation, is that tea is always spoken of in terms of wine -- never the reverse. there may be parts of the chinese-speaking world where that is not the case, but [at least in the western world] you will commonly hear of things 'improving with age, like a fine wine' -- but you would never hear, e.g., 'in 25 years, this wine will have improved like a fine pu'er.' moreover, the frame of reference for such similes is always french wine specifically.

there are probably two [combined] reasons for this: first, the relative familiarity [in the west] with french wines as the benchmark of wine excellence; and second, the relative *un*familiarity [in the west] with tea. in view of these two factors, it's natural and inevitable that other things would get compared to wine rather than to tea. but my resistance to the wine simile is, in large part, intended to try and make westerners think about tea.