The bitterer the betterer.
October 19, 2014 5:05 PM   Subscribe

As a taster, it’s important to know that compared with sour or salty, bitterness is slow to affect our palates. The first two are very simple chemical phenomena and require only the simplest of cellular mechanisms to fire off their signals to the brain. Bitterness, like sweetness and umami, requires an intermediate molecule, something called a G-coupled protein. It takes a little longer to do its thing, and this time dimension of tasting is something that you always need to pay attention to.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (47 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
The bitterness arms race is something that I can get behind far more than the chili pepper one.
posted by arcticseal at 5:18 PM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


All these flavors

And you chose to be salty
posted by hellojed at 5:56 PM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


Hey, now salty rules!

(I am literally licking a chunk of himalayan rock salt right now)
posted by aubilenon at 6:08 PM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


shoulda posted this during Negroni Season
posted by Fupped Duck at 6:09 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


God I can't wait for this stupid hipster IPA bullshit to end. Every goddamn bar I go to, the beer list is 75% IPAs, 20% Belgians, and MAYBE a couple lagers. Dark lager? What's that? Never heard of it.
posted by cthuljew at 6:42 PM on October 19, 2014 [27 favorites]


IPA always tastes like soap to me. I think it's related to the problem with cilantro, although I can eat cilantro just fine.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:46 PM on October 19, 2014


Interesting. I'm wondering - and perhaps a simple Internet search would answer this question for me - what peoples' preferences are in terms of taste. (Now, in beer, I'm all about hops.)

Mine would be 1. Bitter 2. Umami 3. Salt 4. Sweet 5. Sour
posted by kozad at 6:48 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I' m just going to remind everyone of the existence of bitter melon, the hydrogen bomb to an IPA's MOAB.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:01 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


IPA always tastes like soap to me. I think it's related to the problem with cilantro, although I can eat cilantro just fine.

A week or two back I had an IPA made with English hops* (I think only a tiny tiny fraction of the world's hops are still grown in the UK) and it was a lot more subtle and nuanced than the massive hoppy blast you get from the US & NZ hops that are mostly used in new style IPAs. I tend to think that the huge citrus blast thing will go out of fashion pretty soon (sour beers seem to be the new thing with the trendy beer crowd) but I'd be happy to have the older IPA style hang around.

God I can't wait for this stupid hipster IPA bullshit to end. Every goddamn bar I go to, the beer list is 75% IPAs, 20% Belgians, and MAYBE a couple lagers.

Come to England my friend. The same bullshit is here, but much diluted - in appetising fashion - by the continued availability of a massive range of bitters, stouts, porters, pale ales and milds. You can't be too unhappy in life with a pint of best bitter in front of you.

* - "Twiggy English IPA" from Summer Wine Brewery fact fans.
posted by sobarel at 7:13 PM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


G protein-coupled, not G-coupled protein. Geez.

It's a receptor coupled to a G protein; a G protein-coupled receptor, or GPCR.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:16 PM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


best bitter tastes like the vast dissapointment that is an evening traipsing from old mans pub to old mans pub followed by a chippy serving wan soggy chips followed by a desperate attempt to salvage something from the night being another day closer to my death by smoking hash from dodgy dave that in reality that would've served better as some sort of industrial abrasive wax

allegedly
posted by lalochezia at 7:17 PM on October 19, 2014 [11 favorites]


Channeling John Cooper Clarke a bit there mate. Sorry to hear about the hash though.
posted by sobarel at 7:34 PM on October 19, 2014


Against Hoppy Beer
posted by pravit at 7:51 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I do so enjoy a well-written article like this.
posted by Edgewise at 7:56 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I loves me some IPA, but their popularity has put dozens of brews on the shelf that, frankly, are nothing but a disappointment. Bitter is good, but only when balanced with the rest of the beer. My go-tos now are Fort George Vortex, Dubhe Black IPA, Fire Mountain Cold Cold Billy, Southern Tier Unearthly and Mad River Steelhead Double IPA. But when I see a new brew on the shelf, especially with a cheeky name (Buffalo Bill's Alimony Ale -- the Bitterest Brew in the World) I figure I ought to give it a try.

I can't wait for the sour-beer fad (blech!) to knock the mediocre IPAs off the shelves. Let the sour guys deal with the embarrassment of riches of monstrously sour, poorly-balanced beers (with, no doubt, some gems in the mix, if you like that sort of thing.) I'll be over in the much-diminished IPA section, and people won't complain so much about how they hate my favorite beer.
posted by spacewrench at 8:56 PM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


The "bitterness is slow to affect our palates" science has finally helped me figure out the the phenomena behind the slow burn reaction of the Malort face.
posted by geryon at 9:10 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I love bitterness in food and humor but I'm getting awfully tired of hops. Hopefully at some point the pendulum will swing and the hopsters will move on to malt.
posted by uosuaq at 9:11 PM on October 19, 2014


The sour moment is starting to wane, the next big thing seems to be session beers. Which is actually really nice, cause I've actually had some killer IPAs clocking in at ~4% lately. You really have to tighten up your flavor when you can't hide behind alcohol burn + more malt than a bagel.

A week or two back I had an IPA made with English hops*

This generally has less to do with the hops themselves than the style of IPA. British-style IPAs tend to be more earthy and balanced, and American style IPA is often synonymous with 'hop bomb', but there are plenty of low-alpha American hops that fit right in to a BIPA.
posted by Itaxpica at 9:14 PM on October 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


Ixtapica: I've actually had some killer IPAs clocking in at ~4% lately.

I still dream about a ~3.5% session IPA Mikkeller made in their Single Hop line a few years ago. So refreshing and crisp and delicate.
posted by MetropolisOfMentalLife at 9:31 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


MetropolisOfMentalLife, Evil Twin makes a 3.5% IPA called Bikini Beer that I've been seeing around a bunch lately. It's pretty excellent.
posted by Itaxpica at 9:42 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm partial to Gravity Falls Porter, Tubby Otter Fall IPA, Mendel's Beans Belgian Pilsner, Hop Kobold, and Clever Name Pale Ale at the moment.
posted by uosuaq at 10:00 PM on October 19, 2014


I can't wait for the sour-beer fad (blech!) to knock the mediocre IPAs off the shelves. Let the sour guys deal with the embarrassment of riches of monstrously sour, poorly-balanced beers (with, no doubt, some gems in the mix, if you like that sort of thing.) I'll be over in the much-diminished IPA section, and people won't complain so much about how they hate my favorite beer.

I agree. I love IPAs but there are too many so-so ones being released, and a new fad will help.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:22 PM on October 19, 2014


I first had an IPA early enough in their revival that the bartender had to explain to everyone what it was. He said that in the 1800s, the British breweries would make a special brew of beer so jam-packed with hops that it could survive the long voyage to India. Once a shipwreck spilled barrels on the English coast, local drinkers got a taste and demanded they be sold domestically.

I had a glass, and absolutely hated it! MISTER YUCK. That's when I realized:
India Pale Ales are the beer equivalent of American fruit that's bred for transportation without spoilage rather than taste.
My favorite beer variety is one that's only drunk around Birmingham, England (and Brummie-colonized regions like central Wales). It's called mild, and it's a "working man's beer," meant to be drunk over the course of an evening with yer mates after a long day down at t' mill. I wish American hipster microbrewers would hop on its bandwagon next!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 11:02 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Interesting. I'm wondering - and perhaps a simple Internet search would answer this question for me - what peoples' preferences are in terms of taste. (Now, in beer, I'm all about hops.)

Mine would be 1. Bitter 2. Umami 3. Salt 4. Sweet 5. Sour
posted by kozad at 9:48 PM on October 19 [+] [!]


I' m just going to remind everyone of the existence of bitter melon, the hydrogen bomb to an IPA's MOAB.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:01 PM on October 19 [+] [!]


Bingo those things. In the first instance, I'm reminded of a south east asian cookbook (title sadly forgotten) that pointed out that western cuisines have very limited places for the flavour "bitter" and the texture "gelatinous". We don't really do either. Sure, you can find exceptions (eggplant, chocolate, coffee, beer, jello, aspic, hipster coffee-beer-aspic served in a piece of lab glass with a tiny but long handled artisan crafted redwood spork) but those exceptions are pretty limited.

Second, bitter melons. Different origins, varieties, stages of ripeness, very different intensity of flavour. I'm used to getting the (larger, not so knobbly, light green) "Chinese" variety from a single shop round the corner from me. They don't dick around with produce selection or freshness. They buy ripe, and if something's been on the shelf for a while, they chuck it out. So a really simple stirfry (pork fat, garlic, pork, bitter melon, salt/sugar/fish-sauce) is amazing. Mildly and pleasantly bitter, salty and sweet, smoky pork fat coating your mouth. Then, couple of years back, I go to Darwin, hit Rapid Creek markets for my shopping, and buy "Indian" variety melons (smaller, very knobbly, darker green) and they're just a little bit too ripe (but not completely ripe ripe, because then the flavour changes to sweet). Get em home, cook em on the wok outside, dog's going nuts over the smell of pig, almost cooked, have a taste, have to spit it on the floor (without any "slow to affect your palate", btw). Dog has a taste. He spits it on the floor too. Runs out to the lawn and starts rubbing his lips on the grass. Then looks at me with this hurt expression. Like I've completely betrayed his trust.. And then I remember that my Filipino friends use the same variety and always blanch and drain them before cooking. Or even salt, blanch, and drain them. Anyway. Long way of saying "hydrogen bomb, fuck yeah."

(That said, there are much more bitter things out there. Cambodians use a leaf in soups that comes from one of the Strychnos species. For a long while I thought it was one of the same ones we have in Australia, even though they eat theirs and we use ours to poison fish in billabongs. So I think it's probably a different species. But it could just be a taste thing.)

Finally, going back to that "what people's preferences are" and the general notion that western culture might be fairly limited in this regard - Khmer has at least four words for different types of bitterness. And I'm reasonably sure that those are considered primary flavours. I'd be happy to be proved wrong about this, but the reason I think they're primary flavors is that when you're asking about it, beyond a certain level of rather vague explanation, the definitions always default to analogy - to ostensive definitions. Exactly as ours do for "what is sweet?", "what is red?"

So, anyway. Hoping these aren't true-type fonts or anything and this'll be readable..

- ចត់ cɑt - the bitter flavor of unripe guavas

- ល្វីង lviiŋ - the bitter flavor of bitter melons.

- ហាង haaŋ - the bitter flavor of young wild bamboo shoots

- ម្ចត់ mcɑt - clearly derived from cɑt above, but referring to an astringent bitterness fully defined by it's similarity in flavor to ទឹកម្ចត់ tɨk mcɑt - the brown liquid traditionally used to dye forest monks' robes. Never been able to get an explanation of what's in that.

Pretty sure there's one other primary bitter flavour, but I can't find it in my dictionary at the moment.

And then there are others I'm unsure about, such as ក្រពុល krɑpul and ប្រឡឹងប្រឡាំង prɑləŋ-prɑlaŋ. I've never been able to get a handle on whether that second one means bitter, lacking in taste, or sour and salty. Finally there are a large number of words that are either adjectives or participles giving emphasis to how bitter things are by combining the roots above (with or without various -fixes), or indicating mixes of flavours. Or both. I think my favourite is ល្វីងជូរចត់ lviiŋ cuu cɑt - literally "bitter-melon bitter sour unripe-guava bitter" but usually translated as "to be bitter".

As a finally finally thing, on a quick straw poll, Khmer words that combine one form or another of bitter with one form or another of sour seem to be the most numerous of the mixed flavour terms. And I sometimes think that might be the flavour version of linguistic relativity and colour terminology. Instead of starting off with "black and white.. and red!" maybe languages all start with "tasty v. not tasty.. and sour!" or something like that.

So.. guy in original article is right. Bitter. It's complicated.
posted by Ahab at 11:24 PM on October 19, 2014 [18 favorites]


Uhh, western cuisine has tons of bitter flavors. They do trend to be herbal rather than from a fruit however.

Dandelions, chicories, broccoli rabe and many other brassiceae (though not bok choy), artichokes, aspargus, bitter almond, licorice (both bitter and sweet), the bitter of citrus peel, etc. And that doesn't count all the flavors you've decided just aren't exotic enough for you.

And that's not including the drinks. Tea (Earl Grey especially). Coffee. A whole variety of liquors like Cynar, Campari or Fernet. Amaros. Soft drinks like San Bitter (and other less extreme examples) And of course beer.
posted by aspo at 12:32 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


He said that in the 1800s, the British breweries would make a special brew of beer so jam-packed with hops that it could survive the long voyage to India. Once a shipwreck spilled barrels on the English coast, local drinkers got a taste and demanded they be sold domestically.

I had a glass, and absolutely hated it! MISTER YUCK. That's when I realized:

India Pale Ales are the beer equivalent of American fruit that's bred for transportation without spoilage rather than taste.


Wikipedia isn't backing your bartender up on this one - and even if the apocryphal shipwreck story was true, people still asked for the hoppy beer, while nobody who has tried both finds crappy long-lasting apples better tasting than fresh, properly picked ones. I guess you also object to port, sherry, smoked meat/fish, sausage and pickles, right?
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:43 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


IPAs are not analogous to fruit bred for preservative quality any more than brandy is. That's a weak reason to write anything off and the serendipity that sprung from someone enjoying it is the opposite of your weak reason. Next you'll tell me spices were used to preserve food!
posted by aydeejones at 3:37 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


(That's my second "not directly responding to the comment above" comment today -- even if the IPA origin story were true it'd be no reason to discount the contributions of IPA any more than turmeric or salt)
posted by aydeejones at 3:38 AM on October 20, 2014


And that's not including the drinks.

Bitter Lemon!
posted by eriko at 5:23 AM on October 20, 2014


My favorite beer variety is one that's only drunk around Birmingham, England (and Brummie-colonized regions like central Wales). It's called mild, and it's a "working man's beer," meant to be drunk over the course of an evening with yer mates after a long day down at t' mill

Available all around the North too, and it was my dad's favourite tipple back in his salad days in the 1960s in Kent. It is good and pleasingly untrendy stuff, but also infamous for - hmm, how can I put this delicately - making a chap fart like a docker after a couple of pints.
posted by sobarel at 6:05 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ugh, the MetaFilter 'IPA's are Awful Brigade' is quite tiring. I'll never understood how someone else enjoying something you don't that's popular is wrong.

As for the apocryphal shipwreck story, beer historian Martyn Cornell has debunked that, and Robert Pattinson chips in an interesting factoid that suggests that IPA's developed as a distinct higher ABV style from the Pale Ale's being brewed in the day because of a tax refund.

Prior to 1908 the Pale Ale and the IPA had identical to similar hopping rates for all the major English breweries, because--surprise, surprise-- people back then enjoy bitter beer just as much as we do today. However, I'm not saying that the IPA that's in my fridge today is as bitter as it's grandfather. Most American IPA's today sit in the 50-70 IBU range, while their English counterparts most likely sat in the 40 range, however the perceived bitterness isn't likely too far off since a good deal of the those cask-aged beers would have undergone secondary fermentation and ended up quite, quite dry.

tl:dr Shut up about IPA's, you're spoiled for choice.
posted by nulledge at 6:47 AM on October 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


Bitterness, like sweetness and umami, requires an intermediate molecule, something called a G-coupled protein. It takes a little longer to do its thing, and this time dimension of tasting is something that you always need to pay attention to.

I assume there's some biochemical mechanism for this, but:

So we breed puppies from time to time. Puppies chew on things, including things you'd rather they didn't. This leads to the purchase of various anti-chew sprays such as Bitter Apple or Bitter End, which are -- wait for it -- bitter.

Now, I don't believe that you should routinely do unto your pups that which you aren't willing to have done unto you, especially when it comes to negative reinforcement. I wanted to have an idea of exactly how awful this stuff was, so I dispensed the tiniest, weensiest drop of Bitter End onto the tip of a finger and touched it delicately to my tongue, at which point Tsar Bomba went off in my mouth, my eyes went wide, and I regretted my birth. And it went from zero to I'VE MADE A TERRIBLE DECISION in about a millisecond.

So why didn't it take the few seconds science says? [billoreilly] You can't explain that! [/billoreilly]
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:31 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


My favorite beer variety is one that's only drunk around Birmingham, England (and Brummie-colonized regions like central Wales). It's called mild

It should be mentioned that there are a TON of American milds, including one called, literally, American Mild. At this point pretty much the only international beer style I can think of that American brewers aren't brewing is Lambics, and that's only because they literally can't for the same reason American wineries can't make Champagne.
posted by Itaxpica at 8:03 AM on October 20, 2014


Supporting Ahab's comment....

Per a review article from 2009 (ie, Machashi and Huang), 25 types of T2R subrecetors to detect bitterness have been found. The authors don't really speculate how these work (alone, together, because this could imply differentiating hundreds if not more) ...but I found it fascinating that there are ways to perceive many types of bitterness. Who would've thunk?

It seems a bit early in this particular area of science to know if there are cultural differences that could be attributed to these genes, but to me, it made me wonder.
posted by Wolfster at 8:34 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


If you're a fan of bitterness and alcohol, Amor y Amargo in New York is a must-visit cocktail bar. Their cocktails are all concoctions of different amaros, aperitivos, and a dizzying array of different bitters. The only citrus behind the bar is for zests, and the only syrup is sugar. Yet the range, depth and complexity of flavors that they manage to create is stunning.

The proprietor once told me that that bitterness is the only flavor that you can layer on itself. Adding multiple types of sweetness or sourness together doesn't result in more perceptual sweetness or sourness past a certain point, especially in terms of complexity, while he can throw 3+ different amaros together and get something magical.

How chemically/biologically accurate that is, I don't know, but experientially seems quite possible.
posted by MetropolisOfMentalLife at 9:10 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


It should be mentioned that there are a TON of American milds

Really? Then I will go hunting! I suppose they still are at the microbrewery stage and haven't yet reached IPA's ubiquity as the beer equivalent of "Alternative Rock." (Also, thanks to everyone who corrected me on the shipwreck story. If you can't trust your bartender, who can you trust?!?)
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:40 AM on October 20, 2014


Really? Then I will go hunting! I suppose they still are at the microbrewery stage and haven't yet reached IPA's ubiquity as the beer equivalent of "Alternative Rock."

This is where sites like BeerAdvocate's Style Page for English Dark Mild comes in handy for identifying targets to try. Lots of these may not get any distribution or may only be regionally available. With that said, if you recognize a brewery that does distributes in your area, this is a good way of asking at a better beer seller for a suggestion. An ideal scenario is a high quality beer bar that does an immense of variety of retail. I've found the bartenders there generally have to know their stuff. If you came to Cincinnati, I'd have a suggestion or two for you in this space.
posted by mmascolino at 11:24 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Amor y Amargo in New York is a must-visit cocktail bar

Alton Brown interviewed Amor y Amargo's Sother Teague on his podcast.
posted by Lexica at 11:46 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Lexica: Very cool, I'll take a listen. Sother is one of the most skilled service people I've ever met.
posted by MetropolisOfMentalLife at 12:18 PM on October 20, 2014


Adding multiple types of sweetness or sourness together doesn't result in more perceptual sweetness or sourness past a certain point, especially in terms of complexity

To be persnickety (and I'd love to have the chance to discuss this over a glass or three of something suitable), I think this claim isn't quite right. As a sour fiend (as a kid I used to peel and eat lemons), I can definitely taste differences between various sour substances: lemon is different from lime is different from tamarind is different from cider vinegar is different from pomegranate vinegar is different from… Combining and layering them gives a different quality to the flavor.

Maybe it's just that my standard for "past a certain point" is set somewhere different from his.
posted by Lexica at 12:28 PM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


I grew up drinking Mild in the Midlands, so if they're starting to be brewed in North America, that would be fantastic.
posted by arcticseal at 12:35 PM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


I can definitely taste differences between various sour substances

I'm almost definitely not doing full justice to the insight Sother was trying to share, but as I understood what he's saying, it's not that combining sour flavors does not change the overall sour note, but more that it does not change the amplitude of the sourness, and overall it's hard to get fidelity of flavor separation/combination when combining multiple sours or sweets or salties.

So I guess, if you're making a cocktail with 1oz lemon juice and 1oz lime juice, the beverage tastes as sour as with 2oz of lemon juice, whereas 1oz of fernet branca and 1oz of cynar is perceptually a stronger bitterness than just 2oz of fernet.
posted by MetropolisOfMentalLife at 12:36 PM on October 20, 2014


I just can't choke down bitter stuff. Never drank a cup of coffee in my life. Bitter beer is undrinkable. I don't even like chocolate. I spent a lot of money when I was in Venice where I tried to force myself to develop a taste for bitter cocktails, but couldn't tolerate any of them. Not sure why it is so offensive to me. Lots of things I would like to enjoy (vegetables, etc) I just can't stand because of bitterness. It is so incredibly unpalatable to me, that it is hard for me to understand why people like it. It is as strange to me as people who eat bicycles or glass.

The other tastes? I'm a fan of them being powerful. Really salty is great. High levels of umani is excellent. Like sour explosions. (I do find things too sweet on occasion). I really don't care for bland things; the more taste the better generally. But even a little bit bitter and I'm out. Strange.
posted by dios at 12:57 PM on October 20, 2014


Ugh, the MetaFilter 'IPA's are Awful Brigade' is quite tiring. I'll never understood how someone else enjoying something you don't that's popular is wrong.

I honestly wouldn't complain, but I wasn't being hyperbolic in my percentages in that first comment. I have seen beer lists where well over half the menu is IPAs, and lagers are relegated to a tiny spatter wedged between stouts and ciders. There are only so many taps in a given bar, and when IPAs take up three quarters of them, everyone who doesn't like IPAs is losing out. Drink what you like — hell, even I drink IPAs when the beer is free — but don't tell me that the IPA fad isn't limit choices for other kinds of beer.
posted by cthuljew at 3:24 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ugh, the MetaFilter 'IPA's are Awful Brigade' is quite tiring.

I see it as the immature impulses of a young craft (the hops arms race). Maybe in time the craft breweries will mature. Until then, the beer scene is like the American wine scene up until a few years ago, where most of the highly rated bottles were all about the spectacle. Super concentrated, jammy high alcohol "wow look what we can do" sort of stuff. That shit gets tiring, and it's not enough to simply search out what you like and ignore the rest; the overall trends demand constructive criticism.

I'd like to see more mature American brews like many french wines are mature compared to the American. Stuff you can drink all night that doesn't try to hit you over the head but is sublime.

But then I'm an old man so get off my lawn.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:02 PM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


dios, you might be a supertaster.
posted by gilrain at 11:44 AM on October 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Itaxpica wrote: "The sour moment is starting to wane, the next big thing seems to be session beers. "

I'll see your session beer and raise you a bourbon barrel aged beer. They seem to be springing up. All. over. the place.*

*I can't abide by hard liquor-beer mashups myself, but somebody must be buying them... *sniffs haughtily*
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:54 PM on October 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


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