Beer and food pairings are rarely combined with the calculating precision of science. If anything, picking out the perfect cheese or cured meat to go with a glass of wine or beer growler seems more like fine art than anything else.
That said, how many combinations must one go through before finding the best combination of food and drink that amplify one another? Through experimentation and careful note-taking, the best matches are found.
In a way, the exercise represents a microcosm of the scientific method. Through experimentation, truth is found.
Experimentation is what patrons of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science found on March 1 when the museum hosted The Science of Beer and Food Pairings, a live experiment, in which nearly 200 participants sampled pre-selected beer and food pairings to determine how they interacted with taste perception.
“It’s fun, we’re doing it with beer, it’s because people show up for beer. But, if we learn about how one thing can enhance another, or one thing makes something go down, if we did something with salt, that’s applicable to any chef,” said Nicole Garneau, the geneticist in charge of the Genetics of Taste Lab at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
According to Garneau, who designed this experiment, the goal was to determine if the increased malt from one beer to another would impact the perception of taste in food. Garneau first had to define what
taste was to her participants which she called, “human science instruments.”
She classified taste into five clearly defined categories: Sweet, bitter, sour, umami and salty categories.
She also explained the purposes of the study that taste and flavor were two separate things. Flavor was described as the interaction of all different tastes together to produce an overall sensation.
The definitions were crafted by Garneau and the Beer and Food working group. This was science at its most accessible. The lab was one of the museum’s great halls. It was lined with rows of tables neatly
arranged with purple tablecloths and plastic cups. The test subjects were Denver residents.
“To be able to participate in any kind of science experiment, is really for me, a blast. It’s fantastic. It’s so fun to be able to participate and be the guinea pigs in this study,” said Kathleen Simpson, one participant in the study.
Simpson is a member of the museum and a captain at the Great American Beer Festival. Her sentiments echoed those of Charlie Winters and Kennedy Doll, who liked how this event was like activities Winters did at the museum as a child. However, the difference was that this event was for an adult audience.
Garneau guided the experiment with her warm demeanor as master of ceremonies. First, each human science instrument established a taste baseline. Clear plastic cups filled with clear liquid sat at each seat, and were labeled with one of the five different tastes. Participants sipped each cup to familiarize themselves with what each taste was.
Next came three beers, labeled 137, 538 and 739. There was a reason for the secrecy.
“Let’s say someone was like, ‘Alesmith is my favorite. I go to Fiction every Friday.’ If they knew which one was Fiction and they knew what style it was, they might try to tell us what they were describing based on because they know how the brewer describes it,” Garneau said.
She added that knowing the beers had the potential to impact how a participant rated the beer and could skew the results.
After the experiment, the three beers were revealed. They were a Schwarzbier from Fiction brewery,
Buff Gold from Boulder Beer and a nut brown ale from Alehouse.
Garneau programmed a survey app from Survey Gizmo to run the experiment. The app instructed participants to rate the beers according to each of the five tastes defined earlier. Only 8 ounces of each beer were provided, and refills were out of the question. Participants had to ration their intake or in order to finish the study.
Once the baselines for the beers were established, the catering staff brought out the first of three dishes. In order, they were mushroom soup, a pasta dish with red sauce and finally a plate of cheese. Like the beer-only portion before, participants had to establish a baseline with each dish.
Dishes’ ingredients were disclosed due to food allergy and religious reasons. Garneau chose vegetarian dishes to expand the amount of people who could participate.
After the taste baseline was established, it was time to see how the beer affected the taste of each dish. The online app tracked whether the five taste profiles increased or decreased after the beer was consumed. Some dishes became saltier or more bitter, while others became sweeter or sour.
Good science takes time and Garneau’s experiment is no different. Last year, Garneau performed a similar experiment which she said was like the blind leading the blind. However, she didn’t trash the concept. Instead, Garneau refined it.
“As a scientist, I feel like I could always design things better, ask better questions,” she said. Garneau hopes to publish the results from this new study, however she still has to go through the data to see if
the information she collected is solid. As far as her hypothesis, Garneau is uneasy jumping to any conclusions about the outcome until she’s had a chance to thoroughly examine the data.
Ultimately, Garneau hopes her research would help chefs to find flavor combinations easier and people in the food industry improve their craft.
Angelica Miranda, who works in the Genetics of Taste Lab, said, “You need to get the basic research done so you can build on that. So you can build making medicines, making nutrition, anything else. You need to know how it works.”
Garneau agrees, and recognizes the museum’s role aiding her research.
“Wherever else can you have a model of fun scientific research that you can participate in?”