Why Brain Science and Beer Go Hand-In-Hand

By Lisa Qu

Beer and neuroscience — an unlikely combination, you might think, for anything other than a collegiate shooting the breeze over drinks. But in my field of study — olfaction — they can be tightly intertwined.

I work to uncover the neural mechanisms of how we learn about a new odor. The parallels between olfactory research and beer start with some basics: They have overlapping chemistry terminology (“esters”, “volatile compounds”), and the craft of brewing beer camouflages as one application of the scientific method, with plenty of trial-and-error and hypothesis testing.

No, it’s not your imagination. Beer isn’t something that smells good to most people at first. In fact, just a few years ago, I actually disliked beer. But since then, I’ve slowly amassed a mental library of styles and flavors that I’ve encountered, those I like, and those I’ll pass on next time. These learning experiences are not unlike the ones of brewers or chefs or perfumists. Important to my work, we know that even things that once smelled or tasted repulsive can come to be pleasurable. So how do we form new odor representations, and how are they affected by learning and experience?

Three ingredients (besides water) make up your average beer: grain, yeast, and hops. Grains are prepared before you brew, yeast is added as you brew, and hops can be added while or after your brew. At each of these stages, a brewer relies heavily on his or her senses. Many scientific experiments, along with anecdotal evidence, have revealed mixed findings.

You have people like Richard Paterson, also called “The Nose”, who purportedly can identify the region of Scotland a whisky is from just by smell alone. A study from my lab showed that prolonged exposure to a particular odor —> Read More