Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, savory — or umami, if you’re a person well-versed in tastes — are the building blocks of how human tongues interpret flavor. Those five aspects combine to create larger impressions of what we put in our mouth, and for obvious reasons: side-by-side with our sense of smell, taste has historically informed us what is good to eat — and what isn’t.
Now, before I start cracking jokes about how people who purport to prefer IPAs are all kidding themselves, let’s talk more about taste. Not all species have the need for such a diverse palate — most felines, for example, have a conspicuous lack of sense for flavors classified as “sweet.” As a largely carnivorous class of animal, cats simply have less need to taste sweetness — a trait that’s shared with most birds, with the obvious exceptions of hummingbirds and tropical species whose diet heavily involves fruit. Omnivores, however, have need for a wide variety of taste receptors in order to appropriately seek out and respond to the food that makes up their diet.
The sense of taste is both motivator and warning, providing pleasure when things are eaten that fulfill our needs while also cautioning against potential harm. Have you ever heard the taste and smell of cyanide described as “bitter almonds?” That’s because the taste for “bitter” was most likely selected for through exposure to toxins!
There you have it, bitter tastes are linked to poison, IPAs are bitter, therefore IPAs are poison. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
So, how did humans start drinking beer that tastes like poison? Because it had a far superior shelf life!
A relative of the cannabis plant, resin-y hops have a long history with beer. Originating as a special-occasion harvest brew often referred to as “barleywine,” what we know today as an India Pale Ale got its name from the East India Trading Company ships that began to carry light, bitter beer in the early 1800s — both because it traveled better, thanks to high levels of organic acids in the oils produced by processed hops, and helped to prevent cases of scurvy among sailors due to its slightly higher vitamin C content.
A lot of things from the Age of Sail didn’t quite translate to the modern era, but based on current brewery trends, the IPA is here to stay. So, the next time you’re lifting a glass of bitter fermented grain juice, think of the sailors and soldiers before you and order up a serving of hardtack to go with it.