Judging An Experiment With A Tasting Party

I love to experiment in my winemaking, and that means being just as careful about judging the experimental wines and meads as it does about making them. In a controlled experiment, I’ll make at least two almost-identical batches. The only difference between them will be the object of the experiment. Details are important here because any other difference might affect the outcome.

Once you’ve made your experimental batches, and carefully controlled the differences to meaningfully test something, then you’ve got to determine how the batches differ. This sounds like the easy part, but there are all sorts of ways that human judgment can be biased. As the experimenter, your own preconceived ideas can creep in even if you have someone else bring you unmarked samples to taste. It could be that one just looks different than the other, and you’ll know which is which because you made them.

The problem

I’m getting ready to conclude an experiment that tests the effect of boiling on a mead, so I’ve been thinking about how to observe the differences in my experimental batches. Well, if my own preconceptions can skew the results, then I’ll want other people in on the testing. They’ll have to know enough about the experiment to give me useful feedback; I’m not interested in whether they prefer their mead at room temperature rather than chilled, for example. One of the claims made about boiling is that it drives off volatile compounds that are responsible for the aroma, so I’ll ask for feedback on the aroma. On the other hand, I can’t tell them so much that I influence their judgment.

The solution

So I decided to host a tasting party. There will be six of us, including me and the Lady of the House. All of us will taste, but none of us will know which one we’re tasting. I’ll tell them that they, “will be tasting two similar meads, and I’d like to know how they differ. I’m particularly interested in how the aroma differs from one to the other. I’d also like to know which one they’d rather drink, given the choice, and why.”

The details

I’ll decant the two meads into identical containers, I recently bought two decanters just for this tasting party, and give them arbitrary labels. I’ll write down which label is the boiled mead and which is the no-boil mead, then leave the room. The Lady of the House will then come in and replace the labels with colored post-it notes. She’ll write down which color corresponds to which label. After all that, anyone can serve the mead and hand out colored index cards for everyone to write down their observations. None of us will know which one we’re tasting, but the Lady of the House and I will be able to sort it out afterwards.

I just need to pay attention to the details for a little while longer, then we’ll have a fun evening with friends and finally learn something about this boiling controversy!

Update 4/19/2010 – A simpler and easier way

Tasting blind lets you see a wine as it really is – some irony in that! – but this careful setup is a lot of work. Here’s an easier way to run a blind tasting that gives you most of the benefit with a lot less work. Its what I use to to compare a new wine to an old favorite.

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8 thoughts on “Judging An Experiment With A Tasting Party

  1. John

    Sounds as if you’ve thought this through fairly exhaustively. Good scientific approach, Erroll! I am impressed with your thoroughness. Please let us know which one came off the winner just as soon as you sort through your data. I, for one, am hooked and want to know the outcome.

    – John

  2. Erroll Post author

    Thanks John,

    I’m sorting through the feedback, and there are some surprises. It’ll all be in my next post.


  3. John

    Hey, Erroll,

    Sorry to post this under an unrelated category; I don’t know where else to post it, and there is no link to simply email you, but I need to ask your advice on my latest batch of wine.

    I just pitched yeast in a batch of watermelon/strawberry wine last night. I used Jack Keller’s recipe, and in it he warns against allowing the watermelon juice to sit at room temperature for too long as it will spoil rather quickly. Given my lack of experience in this most excellent hobby, I am unsure just how long is “too long”… I put the must in the refrigerator, like Jack suggests, while waiting the two 12-hour intervals after adding the nutrient and the pectic enzyme. While waiting the last 12-hour interval I decided to make a yeast starter. When I pitched my yeast starter I suddenly realized that the must was still at roughly 48 degrees because it just came out of the fridge. As expected, nothing happened – fermentation did not start because the must was too cold. So I rehydrated another packet of cuvee yeast and pitched it, but by that time the must had been out of the fridge for about three hours and a cloudy haze of fairly thick “gooey” material, which I took to be part of the strawberries I have in a fruit bag in the must, had formed near the surface. Now I’m not sure what it is. I may just be being paranoid due to Jack’s caveat about letting the watermelon juice sit out, but do you think it is possible that I let it sit out for too long and it started to rot? How do I go about determining whether this is the case? Would it stink (it doesn’t right now)? I’m nervous about this one. Can you help me?

    Thanks again, Erroll. I love your blog. I look at it every day!

    – John

  4. Erroll Post author

    Hi John,

    The cold that gave your yeast so much trouble will inhibit all microorganisms, so I don’t think you’re wine is in danger unless the yeast fail to start.

    Sulfite and pH management go a long way towards protecting your must as well. Did you add sulfite? Do you happen to know the pH?

    I went to Jack’s site and found three watermelon wine recipes, but no strawberry-watermelon. None of the three I saw warned that watermelon juice spoils more quickly than other sorts of juice. It’s a big site, and it’s not the first time I had trouble finding something – can you point me to the recipe? If I could read it I might have a better idea of what he’s getting at.

    I have another thought about your procedure. It sounds like you added pectic enzyme to chilled juice and kept it in the refrigerator until you pitched the yeast – is that right? Pectic enzyme works best at warmer temperatures. For a great illustration of this, see Luc Volder’s post on pectic enzyme experiments. He is based in the Holland, and writes in Dutch. There is an English translation at the bottom, though, so just scroll down. I love his approach. He didn’t just read about pectic enzyme, he put the conventional wisdom to the test (which is worth doing even when the conventional wisdom turns out to be right).


  5. John

    Hey, Erroll,

    Sure! The page on Jack’s site is http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/watermel.asp and the recipe is the third one down. The caveat about spoilage is in the last paragraph of the introduction.

    Yes; I did put the pectic enzyme into cold must and then put the must back in the fridge for 12 hours. I did this due to my aforementioned paranoia of spoilage, thinking that was what Jack was saying in his caveat. I tend to lend a great deal of credence to whatever Jack says, and I use his recipes almost exclusively and lean on his advice quite heavily, as I do yours. I did not know that pectic enzyme works better at lower temps, though. I will keep that in mind for next time!

    As to your other questions, yes I did put sulfite in the must, and no I still don’t have any way to determine PH. (I would like Santa to bring me a PH kit this year… Do you think he reads your blog?) I do know this, though: fermentation did start after I pitched the second packet of cuvee yeast, and it has been going fairly strong all day today. I don’t have a nylon fruit bag, per se, so I am using what I have on hand – a cotton draw-string bag of similar size. It occurs to me that this bag may encourage microbial growth, so I am fussing over the must, stirring it frequently. (I think I have stirred it four or five times today.) I really don’t know what else I can do, so I have determined to just relax, sit back and enjoy this learning experience no matter what the outcome is. If you know of anything else I could do, I am all ears, my friend!

    Thanks again.

    – John

  6. John

    Hah! I was just reading what I wrote yesterday, and I realized I didn’t say what I meant. I meant to say, “I did not know that pectic enzyme works better at HIGHER temps, though. I will keep that in mind for next time!” Duh! Sorry, Erroll. I promise I am only partly retarded; it’s not systemic.


  7. Erroll Post author

    I didn’t say what I meant. I meant to say, “I did not know that pectic enzyme works better at HIGHER temps

    Don’t worry, I heard what you meant!

    I had a look at Jack’s watermelon wine page, and I can see why you kept your must refrigerated. I noticed that the first two recipes don’t call for pectic enzyme, but the later ones (all Jack’s own) do. I suppose there are two ways to approach this; you can either keep the must cool until you’re ready to pitch the yeast, or you can allow it to come to room temperature for a few hours while the pectic enzyme does its work.

    In the first option, which is what you did, you shouldn’t expect to benefit from the pectic enzyme and I would probably not add any up front. I would add some enzyme once the wine has fermented out, after the first or second racking.

    It sounds to me like you’re doing just fine – time to stop worrying and let the yeast do their bit.


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