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Blind tasting results: 4 beverages in glass vs. foam cups

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I set up a tasting last week. The main purpose was to test if there is a significant difference in flavor between glass and foam cups in a blind tasting. Some pictures of the event are here: http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/... Click on the next and prev buttons to move between pictures.

I chose 4 distinct beverages: Odell Myrcennary (a very rich IPA), Goose Island Bourbon County Stout (2012 release), Eagle Rare 10 yo bourbon, and Appleton Special Gold Jamaican rum. These were selected A) in order to test the glass and foam against a variety of beverages rather than just one type and B) because each is high quality with a distinct flavor profile that would be marred by any cup that imparts odors or flavors to the drink.

One big challenge was to find identically shaped foam and glassware. The picture titled “Cups are standard…” shows l-r packages of 12 oz foam cups, a 12 oz glass tumbler, and 16 oz foam cups. The next photo shows the individual cups l-r. You can see that neither cup was an identical match to the glass. Ultimately I chose to test the glass tumbler against the 16 oz foam cup because the base and rising angles are closest. The 12 oz foam cup, while having the same volume as the glass had a narrower base and sharper rising angle and might be expected to distribute the wafting scent of the drinks somewhat differently. More on this in a bit.

The first thing to test blind is was whether there is any inherent scent to the dry foam cup and glass tumbler. Some have suggested they can “smell styrofoam 5 feet away” and that it imparts a horrible chemical smell so I wanted to test that objectively. The 2nd and 3rd pictures show Taster #1 blindfolded sniffing the foam cup and then the glass. The cups were held by a 2nd person so the tasters could not tell by feel which cup they were sniffing. Taster 1 could not identify any difference in scent between the two nor could any of the other 5 of us. Note at the outset that unlike some foam cups that might be on the market, the manufacturer claims these cups have “no CFC’s” (if that has anything to do with odor). Also note these cups have a smooth interior finish, not pocked with crevices that might expose inherent odors if any.

In the next step, the stout was poured into both the glass and foam and Taster 1 sampled the nose of each while a 2nd person held the cups, swirling them a couple times. Taster 1’s comments: “they are very similar… just about the same”.

Final step was Taster 1 tasting each and comparing the total flavor impression. After a bit he says “they’re both good… I think I might like this one a bit better (holding up the glass)… it's about the same but a little stronger”…

Hmmm. Next was my turn to try… No scent difference between glass and foam, but when I tasted them I had to admit the glass had a bit bolder taste. Swirling, sniffing, tasting, I realized that the flavor profiles were virtually identical but the glass was slightly stronger. I wondered if the foam might somehow be “absorbing” some of the scent and taste?

Next up was Taster 3 who declared up front that he wouldn’t like the foam. Then sniffing both cups empty and full blindfolded he could find no difference. Tasting them he quickly said “I’m surprised, I think I like this one better (holding up the foam cup)… It’s smoother.” I asked him if softer might be a fitting description and he concurred. This makes 3 tasters in a row who find a basically identical scent and taste profile but it’s slightly stronger in the glass and slightly softer in the foam… What is going on ?

Then it occurred to me: the 16oz foam cup, while being the same overall shape as the 12 oz glass is about an inch deeper and has 33% more air space… could the softness of the foam be due to this difference in volume? Move to the next 2 pictures titled “Top down view of modified foam cup” and “16oz foam cup modified to most closely approximate shape and volume”…. I cut off the top end of the 16 oz foam cup to bring it very close in total volume to the glass tumbler and bingo: when we re-tasted the stout and moved onto the bourbon the strength of the drinks was virtually identical.

Interestingly, each taster after sampling one drink in both foam and glass then poured one into the other to finish the drink as time passed. 3 of us poured into foam, 2 poured into glass.

The main point for me of using foam is convenience, as outlined in another post: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/884444, ...there's nothing quicker than taking a few foam cups, writing directly on the cup with a code letter, pouring equal amounts of the different beverages I want to compare into each cup, and then scrambling them so I don't know the order. I check the nose, the taste, make my notes and then throw the cups away. There's nothing to label, no glasses to wash, and as this experiment shows, there's no affect to taste that I've yet found. I think more people would do blind tastings but they feel it's too much hassle. For people looking for a fast and easy way to blind-taste, IMO this is it.

As for the beverages tasted, all were well received but the “stars” of the show were the Bourbon County Stout and Eagle Rare bourbon. For Bourbon County fans I found the 2012 to be solid, and from memory a slightly richer texture than the 2011 but like the 2011 perhaps not quite up to the level of earlier releases. I’m looking forward to doing a small vertical of the 2007, 2011, and 2012 in the near future.

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