Now, for those of you who feel like stoning me for claiming some kind of gender bias, let me explain.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that a growing number of women are taking jobs as industry beer tasters (i.e., the individuals on a taste panel that determine if a batch of beer meets quality standards or has been developed to the correct favor profile). The number of women holding these positions has quadrupled over the last 10 years, according to the article. Many big breweries have found out that the best tasters in their company are not always who they’d expect.
SABMiller, which makes Pilsner Urquell, Peroni and Grolsch in addition to Miller and Coors brands, says its empirical evidence shows that females are the superior sex when it comes to detecting such undesirable chemicals as 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol, which makes beer “skunky.
This revelation may surprise some, but it may also explain a lot. Could this be a contributing factor as to why many women dislike the taste of beer that a male colleague would drink easily? Could the sensitivity to these “off” flavors make wome more selective, or even reluctant to try new brews? I became fascinated with this new research and decided to do a bit of additional digging.
The reason for the gender difference seems interesting. According to another article from the BBC, estrogen (a horomone that is highest in females) is linked to a more sensitive sense of smell in women – which can make a huge difference when detecting tastes. Though the noses of women and men are structured the same and contain the same amount of receptors, it has been shown that there is more brain activity in women when they perceive smells than when men do – which also may help them to specifically identify certain chemical compounds even at very low concentrations. Other studies have linked women’s abilities to detect body odor and chemical cues to mate selection – implying that there may even be an evolutionary difference.
In an even larger study of school-aged children, many different gender differences with smell were discovered – even before they’ve ever tasted their first brews.
“One of the many findings shows that girls are generally better at recognizing tastes than boys. They are better at recognising all concentrations of both sweet and sour tastes. The difference is not dramatic, but it is quite clear. It is also a known fact that women generally have a finer sense of taste than men.
“We also asked the pupils to count ‘taste buds’ or organs of taste on the tongue. However, the experiment showed that boys and girls have largely the same number of taste buds. So it would appear that what makes the difference is the way in which boys and girls process taste impressions,” says Michael Bom Frøst, Associate Professor at the Department of Food Science at LIFE.
According to the figures, boys need an average of approximately 10 per cent more sourness and approximately 20 per cent more sweetness to recognise the taste.”
Because beer can incorporate sour (see fellow PJ’s excellent article on sour beer), bitter or sweet flavors in many combinations, it stands to reason that there may be some gender differences in which beers are preferred by one sex or the other. Some would rush to the conclusion that making beer that is specifically aligned to women’s tastes might draw in more female beer drinkers, but I see this phenomenon in a different light. it gives us (women) a chance to stick up for our own tastes, instead. While it may not be easy to articulate what we are tasting, it does give some credibility to every girl who’s ever pushed away a skunked lager that was handed to them at a party. I’d love to see some research done about different styles of beer as tasted by each gender. Maybe there are some hidden chemicals that sensitive individuals can taste that drive them away from certain styles – or make them particularly fond of others.
So moving out of an era where we’re trying to make everything equal on paper between genders, we should be looking at ways that each gender is specifically adept, and embrace the differences. While that might make female beer drinkers pickier, it also provides a venue (such as tasting panels, etc.) to infuse more honed comments about homebrews, microbrews and macrobrews as they are being developed. I can only wait and watch to see if participation in other beer industry positions continues to be on the rise as women begin to discover their tasting talents.