Going Deep: How Emotion Affects Taste

Few of us are able to taste anything without the world around us creeping in. Your mood, where you are, who you’re with, what you crave at the time and other such factors all play a role in the way you process tastes and how you categorize them in your brain.  I’m sure there’s scientific research to back this up, but this is a blog and I’m lazy, so just roll with me here.

In the world of high-ABV craft beer, I think it’s a 65/35 split, with the actual taste accounting for 65% of your perception of the beer and your emotional state accounting for the other 35%.  I think emotion plays an even larger role with  session beers and macro swill, with the actual beer accounting for about 50% of the perceived taste and  emotion accounting for 50% of the drinking experience.  So basically the bolder the beer, the less of a role emotion plays, the less flavorful a beer, the larger role emotion has in determining just how well you enjoy it.  I have some personal examples…

Allow me to use Stone’s Arrogant Bastard to illustrate my 65% taste/35% emotion point. A couple of years ago, I had tasted Arrogant Bastard a few times and thought it was a pretty good beer. Then one summer Friday after a hard days work I came home  hot, stressed out, and parched.  It was in this context that I popped open an Arrogant Bastard and took a sip.  It was like a revelation – it was just what I needed at that very moment, fitting my mood and my cravings perfectly.  From that moment on, I have tasted Arrogant Bastard in a different way, as it takes me back to that perfect beer moment every time I have it.  It went from good to forever great in my brain.

On the 50% taste / 50% emotion “session” beer front, I have two great examples.  One is Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, which a wheat beer infused with lemonade.  I had one on a perfect summer’s night while on vacation in Wisconsin and the taste became an instant summer classic.  I now buy a case at the start of each summer and savor it throughout the season.  Abita Amber also falls into this category, as I had a bunch of them during a terrific vacation to New Orleans, Abita’s home city.  The taste takes me right back every time.  In both of these cases, these are beers I would think were utterly forgettable if I had them under normal circumstances.

So that’s the jist of theory.  Now, a truly great beer will transcend emotion and actually take you someplace special, like Sam Adams Utopias does.  But most beers don’t offer transcendant taste, so the context in which we taste them can have a profound affect on how we remember them and how we judge them.  An ordinary beer can become special if it’s enjoyed under the right circumstances, and a good beer can become great if you’re in the right mood when you sample it.  I think the same goes for food, wine, candy, music and movies; just about anything really.

Does anyone have any experiences that support this touchy-feely theory, or do you think I’m just nuts?

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Categories: Beer, Whiskey


Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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10 Comments on “Going Deep: How Emotion Affects Taste”

  1. @BeerPoet
    February 4, 2010 at 10:44 am #

    Totally agree. Not sure about the percentages, but the concept of emotional state affecting perception is spot on. Here’s the flipside. A beer can take you to a different emotional place, too. You just stated as much in your Dragon’s Milk review. I’m paraphrasing, Jim, but you said you slowed down, it had a meditative effect, gave you time to reflect on the things that matter. The Summer Shandy and Abita Amber probably bring a little bit of those good vacation memories and emotions back to you every time you drink them. They are forever associated with those positive memories and emotions. I’m no psychologist, but I bet that’s why they’ve been elevated to a better beer status by your brain, and hence, you crave them from time to time.

    Whew. That’s as deep as I can go at 8:30 in the morning. Back to my Cafe Britt coffee that I got hooked on when I was on a blissful vacation in Costa Rica.

    • February 4, 2010 at 10:54 am #

      I agree Chad. There are a select few beers that can transport you with their goodness alone, and I think Dragon’s Milk falls into that category. Others like the Summer Shandy and the Abita need help, and getting tied together with good times makes all the difference.

  2. February 4, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

    Agreed. Emotional state is a big one. Ambience is another. There is a place in Broad Ripple, IN that I love to go to in the day time. It’s quite, slow, and you there are great beers there. I’ve been in the evening and I just can’t enjoy it or the beer I’m drinking. It’s loud and obnoxious. My response is an emotional one to the ambience but I think we all do this…even if we don’t want to admit it.

    • February 4, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

      It really makes a difference with a lot of things. The food on your plate doesn’t taste as good if you’re stressed out and in a loud restaurant.

      The same goes for beer, maybe even moreso, because we often turn to it when we are down or when we’re celebrating. I think lots of folks reach for a beer (and food) at emotionally-charged moments, both good and bad. Whatever state of mind you’re in can certainly affect your perception of taste and the memories you associate with it. Especially when you’re tasting something for the first time.

  3. February 5, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    Great article Jim! I’ve pointed out several times in the past how emotion (or, I’ll call it ambiance) affects our taste buds. That Arrogant Bastard is a perfect example.

    When I was in Croatia I took a train to the coast (Adriatic sea). While riding in the train I ordered the only beer available: A warm can of Croatia’s own Ozujsko Pivo. I’d probably barf if I drank it today. But, riding in a train through the mountains in eastern Europe, it hit the spot.

    • February 5, 2010 at 12:35 pm #

      Yeah, there are a few warm canned beers from my youth that I look back on with affection, too. But I don’t think having a warm Schlitz in the woods today wouldn’t be the same as I remember it!

      Emotion only gets you so far.

      • Don
        February 5, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

        Maybe if you had a girl with you, and you thought you might score. Would that make the Schlitz better?

        • February 5, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

          It would have been warm wine coolers in that scenario.

        • Don
          February 5, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

          Classy Jim…Classy!

  4. December 27, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    I totally agree about emotion affecting the taste experience. But I also like what Michael Reinhardt says – Ambience is also an important factor. To illustrate: My first experience with smoked beer – the Rauchbier was served to me in a dark, quaint pub in Bamberg, Germany, with a glorious platter of pork belly, sauerkraut and potato dumpling. The stars aligned to make a difficult beer perfect for the occasion.

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