A unique opportunity to experiment with beer tasting presented itself the other week: tasting it while robbed of that particular sense by Covid. There’s a great deal of complexity around what actually constitutes the sense of taste – it’s not just a catalogue of mentally registered flavours, a cerebral Rolodex to riffle through as your brain and tongue work together to separate passionfruit from pineapple. There are chemical reactions, physical sensations, temperature variations. Simply put, flavour is made up of so much more than just flavour.
The beer in question was a lager made under license for an Indian restaurant – it accompanied a pungent, fiery vindaloo, steaming cumin rice and a savoury garlic naan. This was an attempt to brute-force a sense of taste back into being during quarantine isolation. Which worked, for the record; albeit sporadically, and only in brief windows.
It poured clear as yellow glass and only barely opaque, with a white, fluffy head. It had an aroma that brought to mind the edge of the concept of burnt caramel, and nothingness. The meal was long since finished, and this had been saved for after. It had been put in the bag next to the curry and rice, and arrived warm, needing to be chilled again until it could be enjoyed with a palate unadulterated by vinegar, fat and spice.
“But Scottie,” I hear you cry. “How did you eat a curry, a vindaloo no less, without a beer to wash it down? What kind of Herculean restraint did you exercise to not enjoy a crisp and refreshing beverage with your fiery, enlivening meal?” Good question, friend. There had also been a Kingfisher for enjoying with the meal. Now please don’t interrupt again.
Despite the void-touched vibe that arose from drinking a beer with a severely diminished sensory arsenal, it still managed to present a sort of richness that approximated being a little biscuity. A very minor sweetness came through, with a quality of roundness that seemed most closely to echo the idea of vanilla. There was a sensation of cold and acidity, and it had a metallic tang; like sucking on dirty coins or pierced nipples. The delicate fizz buzzes and purrs on the tongue, its voice muted, but still somehow loud in the surrounding silence.
When swallowed, it leaves a resinous bitterness of bark, like chewing on a green stick. It is like the non-aromatic or flavourful qualities of cinnamon or cloves. That bitterness is particularly acrid. There is also a characteristic, most pronounced when the mouth empties again, of drinking slightly dank, stagnant water. On top of this, there is an awareness of an astringency that usually feels less pronounced in a lager, one that leaves the inside of the mouth feeling puckered and drawn.
The mouthfeel is hard to pin down. It’s softer than you might expect. There is, in addition to that gentle fizz and the astringency, a sort of bran-left-in-the-milk-of-unsweetened-cereal quality to drinking beer without the ability to taste. The combined effect overall is mostly sort of savoury, with an over-steeped-tea bitterness. This goes unchecked by those volatile flavour compounds that would usually offset it, and the general absence of sweetness, what with lager being more of a crisp and dry sort of a style.
It is an odd experience. Like living in a mirror-world. The process of drinking a beer while bereft of a sense of taste is still sensation-rich, but it lacks that qualities most strongly associated with it; those of flavour and aroma. Like eating the food of the Fay, or the underworld. It’s like moving through water or looking at something beautiful with a thin gauze over your eyes. On the one hand it feels almost normal, but on the other, everything is subtly, crucially wrong. As an experiment, it was interesting, but familiarity would breed frustration, then outright contempt. If you permanently lost your sense of taste, it would greatly diminish the joy of something as simple as having a beer, even if it didn’t completely remove the associated pleasures. Lucky this was just a temporary sensory deprivation, and I didn’t end up completely tasteless. Now, which Transformers movie should I watch next…?