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Why bitter may be good for you

The other day, Lew Bryson repeated a quote from New Belgium brewer Matt Gilliland from his story in Beer Advocate magazine headlined: “Extremely Boring.”

It sounds a little like science, the sort of thing people will start repeating, and we’ll end up stuck with a slightly cock-eyed idea. Let’s not.

Gilliland said:

“From an evolutionary perspective, people are predisposed to not like bitter flavors because it means poison, sick, bad. What percentage of people in the U.S. do you think have overcome that genetic hard-wiring and really like 100 IBU beer? There you go, that’s your market.”

Yes, if you feed a baby something bitter he or she will reflexively recoil. Bitterness is an acquired taste. We can “overcome the hard-wiring,” and there’s a lot better chance those of us you do will enjoy a healthy, balanced diet.

In moving on from the bland food of the mid-twentieth century, Americans more recently have begun eating like the rest of the world. (And some would argue the rest of the world, unfortunately, is eating more like 1970s Americans). Bitter is making a comeback, although salty, sweet and fatty foods dominate about as much as mainstream lagers.

When you can't get hopsAnd if bitter signals danger then maybe it works in the brain a little like capsaicin, the chemical component that gives chiles their heat. A variety of studies in the last 20-some years hypothesized that capsaicin releases endorphins in your brain. These create something akin to a “runner’s high” or the rush you get when riding a roller coaster.

At the extreme this is because of the pain you inflict on yourself by eating hot, spicy food. But there’s also a learned component – you figure out how to enjoy a level of heat that doesn’t (physically) injure your taste buds. Similarly, we learn that some medicine is bitter and it is good for us. Another example: the flavors of chocolate do cause your brain to release endorphins – and Americans are learning to appreciate more bitter chocolate.

OK, here’s the leap of faith, the stuff I’m making up without any scientific backing. Let’s say you drink a beer with a solid dose of hops. The little danger alarms go off you in brain (“Bitter! Bitter!”) for a moment. Then there’s a rush – from endorphins or not – when you realize this tastes good and you haven’t keeled over dead.

Or there’s an actual trigger, like from casaicins, and endorphins are released.

Either way you feel a little more euphoric – but without increasing your alcohol blood level (than you already have by drinking that beer). Just a thought.

Back to the top. This isn’t presented as a defense of 100 IBU beer (Gilliland’s number – one more brewers claim than achieve). Those beers succeed or fail, and since I’m a hophead many succeed, on their own merits.

Let’s not blame hard-wiring.

Added March 18: It has been pointed out to me in a polite e-mail that my silly bit of “bitter science” quite contradicts my complaint at the top about statements that “sound a little like science.”

Yep, I was dead wrong. I should have left the chiles, casaicins and endorphins out of the discussion. There is a reason to embrace (reasonably) bitter flavors. As we grow older our taste buds die (and our sense of smell begins to be diminished). A particularly noticeable drop off occurs at about 60.

This particularly concerns nutritionists. Tossing more salt and sugar on food for “more flavor” isn’t particularly healthy. Spicy (OK, I had to worked green chiles, rich in vitamins in there somewhere) may be better. Bitterness – which might come from fruits, vegetables or herbs – may add flavor without shortening your lifespan.

The level of bitterness, of course, depends on individual tastes.

Beer myth: Tongue taste map

Had I made a list of significant beer events in 2006 I surely would have mentioned the arrival of three new glossy magazines, two of them – Draft and Beer Advocate – dedicated to beer and a third – Imbibe – about beer and other drinks.

Just a year ago you could find just one, All About Beer, at the newsstand. (That’s not to overlook two magazines devoted to homebrewing or all the regional brewspapers.)

We should be happy about the change. That typed, I’ve got to shake my head at the “Test your tongue” feature in DRAFT.

In this two-page spread you have photos of three people opening their mouths widely and sticking out their tongues. We get the details on three beers (in other words, one per mouth). There are words about how each tastes on the sides of the tongue, how each tastes on the tip (always emphasizing sweetness), and how each tastes on the back (discussing bitterness), with lines pointing to the various places on the tongue.

Hope that all makes sense to you – you might might find it easier to understand if you just pick up a copy (at many Borders and Barnes & Noble stores).

I’ve got three problems with this feature:

– It’s unsightly.
– It’s based on a factually incorrect tongue taste map. We basically taste everything everywhere we have taste buds, not in particular areas. The map arose early in the 20th century as a result of a misinterpretation of research reported in the late 1800s. If you Google the subject you’ll find the map is still being presented as fact. But here’s the real truth.
– There’s little discussion of flavor beyond sweetness, sourness and bitterness. And there’s nothing about aroma.

Aroma is worth a four-part series, but to make the point I ask you only that you take a good-size sip of your favorite beer. Now hold your nose and do it again.

Class over. Enjoy the rest of the beer.

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