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Tasting beer when you’ve lost your sense of taste

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About a month ago, my Mom suffered a traumatic head injury, which put her in the hospital for much longer than anyone would ever want to stay in a hospital. She’s back home now, beginning a long recovery, and coping with the side effects that accompany head injuries, two of them being a near-complete loss of taste and a very dulled sense of smell.

My Mom’s a bit of a beer nerd—definitely a hophead. So, she’s understandably discouraged that, now that she’s off pain meds, she can’t enjoy her favorite IPAs. Her once developed palate has been reduced back to the five basic tastes: bitter, sweet, sour, salty and umami. Her sense of smell has also significantly diminished. It’s an interesting—and obviously unfortunate—predicament for a beer enthusiast, but it seems like she’s slowly regaining her senses.

I visited her last weekend, and she happily agreed to blind sample a flight of beers in order to demonstrate what sensations beer has to offer when a drinker’s lost the ability to taste and smell much of anything. I swung by the nearest shop, picked up a flight of beers offering a range of character, and took notes. Here’s how it went down:

Imperial IPA

Mom’s notes:
Aroma: “It’s just so faint, maybe like an apricot, but it’s like a distant memory.”
Flavor: “Nothing. I can maybe taste bitter. It’s just bitter. I bet this is high in alcohol.”

My notes:
Big peachy aroma. Lots of grapefruit and orange citrus, some vibrant peach and apricot notes; a creamy backbone balancing the intense bitterness, and warming alcohol in the swallow.

ORVAL TRAPPIST ALE (one-year-old bottle)
Belgian Pale Ale

Mom’s notes:
Aroma: “Maybe some cinnamon and cardamom. Definitely spicy, not fruity.”
Flavor: “Almost a sour. I can taste what I smelled—an overall spiciness. It’s tangy.”

My notes:
Pretty spot on with the spices, but also threads of pear, an underlying tartness, and a pronounced rustic barnyard character that dominates the aroma and flavor.

Imperial IPA

Mom’s notes:
Aroma: “Maybe a really, really faint hint of Amarillo or Citra hops.”
Flavor: “It’s creamy. Tastes like it has maybe…If I can push the beer to the back of my tongue I can taste the bitter hops. It’s bitter with a creamy underscore, like drinking a root beer float with that creaminess and bubbly undertone.”

My notes:
It’s just bursting with tropical fruits, some tangerine and a piney, resinous undertone. Great balance between ultra-bitter hops and creamy, biscuity malts.

Specialty beer: Tangy wheat ale

Mom’s notes:
Aroma: “I smell absolutely nothing.”
Flavor: “When I first put it to my nose, I thought there might be lemon, but on the tongue it is lemon—not lemon flavor, but the tartness of a lemon.”

My notes: Overall a subtle, refreshing beer, with bready wheat, bright lemon and a playful tart snap in the finish.

Session IPA

Mom’s notes:
Aroma: “Oh, I can smell some of my favorite hops, but it’s like these hops are way down in a tunnel.”
Flavor: “Tastes a little sweet at first. It doesn’t have much depth as the other IPAs, I think, and maybe not as carbonated. When I smack my lips, it tastes like the sensation of maybe Amarillo, Citra or Cascade hops.”

My notes: A shot of grapefruit, mango, pine and a little onion across the tongue, backed by thin crackerlike malts. A quick flash of bitterness wraps up this swift, colorful beer.


Chris Staten is DRAFT’s beer editor. Follow him on Twitter at @DRAFTbeereditor and email him at chris.staten@draftmag.com.


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