Beers for the ages

Why do our tastes change over the course of our lives?


Have you ever found yourself going off a beer style that you previously couldn’t get enough of? Florence knows that experience well. “When I was about 16 and attending my first house parties, I used to drink cans of Tetley’s or some such Yorkshire bitter” says Florence. “The stronger the better, at room temp. Now I drink mostly fresh-tasting, ice cold Italian lagers, and don’t understand how warm bitter was ever a thing.” So, what changed? In Florence’s case, mostly social context. “I think choosing it in the first place could have had something to do with my bandmate’s grandma telling me it wasn’t ladylike to drink beer” they add. “If I was in the mood, I could go for a pint of bitter, but it certainly won’t be my regular drink of choice any time soon!” Florence is not the only one to experience a major shift in preferences; many of us will notice our tastes in drinks – including beer – changing dramatically over the course of our lifetimes. 

Outgrowing our tastes 

As people grow older, the way that things taste to them might change. Just as we typically expect our hearing and vision to deteriorate as we age, sense of taste might also become somewhat dulled over time. Our taste buds – the groups of sensory cells that are responsible for our sense of taste – typically regenerate every one or two weeks. However, aging can impact the efficiency of this process, and some medications can also interfere with our ability to taste. “Over time… adults do start losing their sensory acuity” says Lindsay Barr, who is a sensory expert and the co-founder of DraughtLab. She explains that this is why we might notice older relatives adding much more salt to food, or wearing more perfume than their younger family members, whilst children tend to prefer blander foods and are typically more sensitive to strong flavours. 

Of course, the physical effects of aging are not the only factors at play when our palates change; there are also social and psychological factors which feed into the ways that we refine our preferences. “We learn cultural norms over time, and we get - generally - more exposure over time, so I think we become a little bit more resilient to differences and to new experiences” says Lindsay. For Martin, who moved from the UK to the USA, his taste in beer began to adapt to the options that were available locally. “Twenty years ago, my go-to was dark – a Wadworth 6X or a Hobgoblin” he says. “Then, ten years ago I moved to Texas. To avoid horrible bland American beer, I turned to craft and started drinking Stone IPA. That was my hophead gateway and now I only drink hoppy beers.” Although Martin misses a pint of hand-pulled bitter on occasion, he feels that his tastes have changed for good, and he now tends to prefer hoppier styles over the darker beers that he enjoyed previously. “Even when back in the UK to visit (pre-Covid) I will have a light hoppy beer - Oakham Citra or JHB. I feel like unless it’s super hopped I just don’t want to drink it.”

But palate development need not always mean preferring bolder flavours. Charlotte, who has been a professional brewer for ten years, says that she has recently found herself appreciating simplicity over novelty. “I think that my tastes have changed a lot over the years as now I think I prefer a simple, but well-made beer, whereas in the past I would have automatically gone for the more extreme, higher ABV or unusually flavoured beer” she says. “When I was twenty-two, I would have loved to pour that double vanilla, ice cream peanut butter stout right in my face, now I really would have to force it down.”

Out of the comfort zone 

For Declan, his meandering journey into exploring beers with a higher level of perceived bitterness has surprised him. “I find it really interesting (and others have said they share this experience) that my hop tolerance, or rather hop appreciation, has progressed like my chili appreciation” he says. The comparison to spicy food is an interesting one. Just as we wouldn’t necessarily expect someone to go from never eating anything spicy at all to dousing food with extra spicy chili sauce at every meal, some flavours in beer – such as a high level of perceived bitterness, as found in modern IPAs and DIPAs - might take a little bit of getting used to. It stands to reason that gradual exploration into hop aromas and flavours would be a more enjoyable experience for many, compared with going from being a light lager drinker to a triple hopped IPA enthusiast in a single afternoon.

My own journey into appreciating craft beer is parallel to what Declan describes; I started with pale ales that were more similar to the lagers I’d already sampled and worked my way through the beer spectrum from there. But for others, the shift in preferences was more sudden and dramatic. “I went in one afternoon [from] LOATHING sours to not being able to get enough” says Charlie. “Before, I was convinced all sours tasted like squash that had been left in a warm room for too long” she says. “Then I went to a craft beer festival and tried quite a few (when in Rome) and a switch went off in my head. Suddenly I got it!” It can be hard to understand what is happening in cases like Charlie’s, when a person’s tastebuds appear to change overnight. Lindsay highlights that apprehension plays a role in the way that we perceive flavours, noting that sour beers provide an interesting example since they fall so far outside the understanding of beer that many of us build early on, based on the first beers that we are introduced to. This could help to explain why a lot of people seem to struggle to get into sour ales, and why they experience a real ‘eureka’ moment when they finally do. “It’s all about; ‘does it align with what your expectations are with this product?’ If it doesn’t, it can be jarring until maybe you shift your perspective about what is acceptable within that category” says Lindsay.

Decisions, decisions

For some drinkers, the growing range of beers available on the market today can sometimes seem a little overwhelming. “I definitely think I’m a lot less adventurous when it comes to beer these days” says Nate. He notes that he has navigated away from browsing hundreds of beers online, opting instead to return to some of his tried-and-tested favourites. “I mostly drink the same lagers all the time and will very rarely branch out into the unknown as I’m more conscious about wasting money if I don’t like something” he says. 

Nate isn’t the only one to double down on a favourite style recently. Particularly during the uncertain times of the pandemic, there has been a renewed focus on comfort for many drinkers. Lindsay points out that she has also noticed that people tend to see occasion beers differently from drinking-on-the-sofa beers. In recent times, there has been more call for the latter, which could explain why, for some of us, the thirst for new experiences might have taken a temporary dive. “We are looking for something that’s more steady, and something that’s a little bit more predictable and comforting” she says. “I think people become a little bit more cost conscious when there is a lot of uncertainty.” 

Adventure time

Researching prior to purchases is commonplace in the digital age, and the huge wealth of information that is at our fingertips even affects our drinking habits. Ilaria from Real Ale, a company that runs three shops in London, has noticed her customers being incredibly thoughtful about their purchases. “Most of the craft beer drinkers that I can see while working always have their smartphone in their hand to check which beers they are missing from their list. People are buying with more conscience and more attention” she says. The elevated focus on mindful purchasing is echoed in the SIBA British Craft Beer Report 2020, which finds that drinkers are increasingly paying attention to the ethical credentials of brands, and purposefully seeking out sustainable brands which have low environmental impact.

In all (and global pandemic aside), there has arguably never been a better time to be a beer drinker. As the variety and accessibility of craft beer expands across the UK, there are plenty of opportunities for drinkers to become more adventurous. For Darryl, exposure to a huge variety of styles has helped him to branch out after drinking only mass-produced beer for many years. “Now I’m eager to try anything and everything new” he says, adding that he and his wife have become craft beer connoisseurs. “We try any and every new brewery that pops up.” Aileen is another drinker who has run the gamut and thoroughly enjoyed discovering new beer styles. “I’ve gone from knocking back pints and pints of Strongbow, through dark beers, rubys, milds and porters, to really preferring sour ales and Flanders reds. I can still drink the former, but I know which I’d seek out first.”

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