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Blind Tastings

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  • Tom Armitage Aug 27, 2001 12:12 PM
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Over on the Los Angeles Board, the idea of a BBQ blind tasting has taken root. I enthusiastically supported the idea, noting that I was a big fan of blind tastings, and had conducted blind tastings of things as diverse as salt, butter, peanut butter, canned tomatoes, and Mexican beer. I was asked to post any tips I had on conducting blind tastings.

It’s very simple. The concept is merely to keep secret, to the extent possible, the specific identify (e.g., brand) of what is being tasted. There are two types of blind tastings: single-blind and double-blind. A single-blind tasting is when the specific identities of the items to be tasted are known, but not the order in which they are tasted. For example, you would provide the participants a list of all the various peanut butters being tasted but, during the tasting itself, not identify which peanut butter is being tasted. A double-blind tasting is when nothing is known about the items being tasted.

The typical way of blind tasting wines is to serve them either from decanters or from bottles in brown paper bags, with the decanters or bags labeled (#1, #2, etc.). At the end of the tasting, the identities of the wines are revealed. This same “paper bag” technique can be used for anything that comes in a glass or plastic container (e.g., olive oils). The other technique is merely to place in baskets (e.g., potato chips), or in bowls (e.g., salt, canned tomatoes), or on plates (e.g., butter) the items to be tasted.

Obviously, the host or hostess of the tasting will know which is which (because he or she assigns the numbers), and is thus deprived of the fun of the blind tasting. One way to avoid this is for the host to put a number in a place where it won’t be seen by others (e.g., on a slip of paper dropped into the bottom of the paper bag, or on a slip of paper taped to the bottom of a bowl or plate), and then have one of the other participants rearrange the items and put the conspicuous number on it. This way everyone can be on equal terms, including the host or hostess of the event.

There’s nothing very difficult or complicated about it. Just use your common sense to keep the specific identities unknown. If, for example, differences in the size and shape of bottles would give away the identity, then transfer the contents to equally sized containers (e.g., glass jars) before the tasting. One time, when I thought I’d be able to identify different products from their appearance, I had myself blindfolded for the tasting.

The main objective is just to have fun. In my experience, blind tastings encourage people to concentrate on taste and texture to a much greater extent than when food is eaten in a less structured way, and they lead to lively conversations and differences of opinion.

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  1. Tom,

    Your ideas are great.

    I've had tasting parties, twice, where all guests were asked to bring three examples of any kind of food or drink. We've tested cheesecakes, fried chicken, yogurt, peanut butter, beer, wine, water, colas, etc.

    For all items, we asked participants to rate each item on a scale of 1-10. For some, we asked participants what their favorite was among the three brands, and then asked them to guess which was which.

    A few general observations. At both parties (as well as a couple of other blind tastings I attended but didn't organize), participants had a miserable time identifying beer, and consistently preferred weird selections (Old Milwaukee and Lowenbrau were both strong winners) -- distinctive and assertive beers did badly.

    And in every test, Coca-Cola proved remarkably popular and easily identifiable.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Dave Feldman

      There was an interesting article in the New Yorker recently about nutmeg and the Spice Islands.It suggested that the secret ingredient in Coke is nutmeg.

      1. re: howard

        In a double blind tasting, not even the host knows the order in which things are tasted. This is not that hard to do. With wine, once I have placed the bottles in bags or wrapped them with aluminum foil, I ask someone else to rearrange the order. They then get numbered (though I like the idea of A,B,C... ).
        Though it sounds like a blind tasting would be the optimal way to evaluate something, the truth is otherwise. You get very confused; you taste things over and each time your opinion changes. It is like saying a word over and over until it just sounds like nonsense syllables. I do very few blind tastings any more.
        When my children were small, however, we used to have blind tastings at birthday parties. We did ice cream, chocolate and sodas. In this case, we literally blindfolded all the guests. It was great fun.

        1. re: Yusuf Factor

          The tasting order can have a profound influence on the results. When I do beer tastings for research, I order them roughly from light to dark, sweet to bitter. Otherwise you might follow an assertive IPA with a delicate lager, and the judges won't even be able to taste the latter.

    2. Thanks for starting this thread, Tom.

      A couple more suggestions - use letters (A, B, C...) as labels rather than numbers. This eliminates the confusion caused by statements such as "the first sample is my third choice or wine four is obviously second). It is also worthwhile pointing out to tasters that tasting in isolation this way tends to highlight flaws and reward powerful tastes, a bias they should combat in forming their opinions.

      I hope you'll be joining us in SF on 10/6 for our picnic and contest of blind-tasting cheeses.