HOW TO APPROACH A TASTING SESSION
Most people will agree that the taste of a food or beverage product is one of (if not THE) most important things it needs to get right. And yet, the people often making the decisions and signing off on the taste of development samples/recipes have limited experience or training in this field, especially for start-ups and challenger brands. If you’re one of these people, or can at least relate to the dread of having to make a decision in front of colleagues based on a blind tasting, hopefully these tips will help you to approach your next tasting session with more structure and confidence.
Set the Scene
It’s true that if certain senses quieten, others become heightened. This is no different for our senses of taste and smell. Therefore, make sure you are in a quiet room, free from any strong aromas or noise. Tasting sessions are often carried out in a kitchen which can be one of the worst places for distractions such as noises and various aromas wafting through the air.
Try and avoid eating or drinking anything at least an hour or two ahead of the tasting session, so that your palette is fresh and at its best.
Try to avoid using paper cups or disposable wooden spoons, as these can taint the taste of your samples and influence your perception.
Use room temperature, bottled/filtered water in between samples. Table water crackers are good to reset an overloaded palette and are convenient to have in stock without worrying about them going off.
Avoid wearing perfume or aftershave ahead of a tasting session, for hopefully obvious reasons. At Tastehead we even go so far as to not offer tea or coffee for clients arriving for an important tasting session (at least until after the tasting session, of course).
Consider the Order
Start with the more subtle flavours and work up to the more intense ones. Samples with a strong trigeminal effect (i.e. the cooling of mint, or the heat of chilli, ginger, etc) should especially be saved until the end, or even for a separate tasting session, as these are particularly distracting and difficult to reset.
You can start with more savoury samples and build up to sweeter ones, but what’s more important, is to consider the sweetness level of the last sample that you just tasted, as this will influence the perception of the next one. Sweet foods will seem even sweeter if you’ve just tasted something particularly bitter or savoury, and vice versa.
Have a Process
There are so many attributes that you need to assess when tasting a food or drink, it’s impossible to focus on everything at once. Make a list ahead of the tasting session of all the attributes that you want to focus on, so that you’re not trying to remember them as you go.
Start with assessing the appearance fully, followed by the aroma. These two attributes can tell you a lot before you’ve even had your first taste.
With your first bite/sip, focus on texture; the initial bite, body, mouthfeel, chew, melt rate. Then, focus on taste, before moving on to the flavours, which are not the same (more on that in a minute). Finally, assess the finish and aftertaste - do any elements linger? If so, for how long? Are they enjoyable or unpleasant?
At this point you can switch off the analytical approach and just answer the final, most important question – how much am I enjoying this?
Taste vs Flavour
I will save a deeper dive into this subject for another article, as it’s an important one to understand as much as possible. Put simply, ‘taste’ is detected on the tongue, with the five main tastes being sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami/savouriness. Flavours, on the other hand, are actually detected by the olfactory bulb located in your nasal cavity with an almost infinite number of volatile compounds than can be detected.
Many people prioritise flavours over tastes, but in many cases having a perfect balance of tastes is key to having a product that is both mouth-watering and moreish.
Consider the serving size that the final consumer will have. Some foods and drinks can seem delicious at first, but quickly become sickly or too intense after eating a full portion. Certain ingredients have a compounding effect, such as the heat of ginger - the more you eat, the hotter it becomes.
At some point you should always taste a full portion before signing a recipe off. If possible, you should try to do this in a real-world scenario; a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, sharing a bar of chocolate with someone on the sofa after an evening meal. It can be surprising how much your environment can impact your results.
For best results, it’s good to revisit the samples at least once to ensure you’re confident with your assessment. Time of day, what you had for lunch, many factors can change your perception slightly from one session to the next.
You may also want to change the order in which you taste samples. Large-scale consumer taste panels often divide respondents into several groups, each with a different running order of the samples to ensure that the results are as reliable as possible. The first sample conditions your palette and so may influence how you perceive the next.
Are you sure?
Your mind can play tricks on you. I’ve lost count the amount of times that someone, including myself, has been convinced that they can tell the difference between one sample to the next, only to find that under blind tasting conditions they’ve been unable to replicate these results.
Blind tasting is the industry standard and should be implemented wherever possible when assessing variations in samples of a single product type. The most commonly used method for such occasions is the Triangle Test, which is a form of discrimination testing. Here’s how it works:
Let’s assume you are looking to reduce the calorie content of a chocolate brownie product. Two different recipe/batches are prepared; the original recipe (A), and the reduced calorie recipe (B). You then arrange into sample groups to be tasted and select one sample from one batch, and two samples from the other batch, i.e. ABB and AAB. Each sample is then given a random number so that the tester cannot see whether a sample is from batch A or B, whilst you make note of the random numbers.
The challenge for the tasters is to taste all three samples (let them try in any order they want and to go back and forth between them to encourage randomness) and try to select the odd one out. If this can be done consistently then it is obvious that the differences between recipes is significant. However, random guessing alone would on average result in you being correct 33% of the time, and so if the difference is less obvious it can be measured by the percentage of tasters/occasions that the odd one is correctly called out. The closer to 33%, the less obvious. The closer to 100%, the more obvious.
I hope you’ve found at least a couple of these points useful and can apply them to your next tasting session. Please do share this article with anyone else you feel may benefit. Do you have any other tips to add from your own experiences?