It blows my mind that people once smoked in bars. Bars used to be hazy, horrid places, and in retrospect it amazes me that any non-smoker ever suffered to spend an evening in one, when just seeing a band or having a few drinks with friends meant stepping into a smelly, cancerous cloud. The stink got in your hair, clothes, skin—whether you were smoking or not.
I often was. I smoked steadily for years, wherever and whenever I could. Now, as a 35-year-old former smoker, I can detect the barest whiff of tobacco from down the street. Since quitting, my sense of smell and taste has sharpened, and any vestigial desire for a cigarette is (usually) trumped by my desire to smell and taste things well.
During the years when I was whacking back warm cans of PBR and sucking down Marlboro Reds, a well-developed palate was not a high priority. Today, those very same bars where I used to smoke and chug down alcohol-flavored corn liquid now offer a plethora of beer options. Craft beer’s meteoric rise was largely based on flavor, and the notion that beer drinkers wanted something that tasted better. But our ability to taste the difference is external to the thing itself—bound up in our physiology, experience, and choices about what and how we consume. A friend of mine, a successful chef, once scolded me when he spied a pack of cigarettes in my bag. “I thought you were a flavor guy,” he said, shaking his head.
Maybe we’re all flavor guys now. I’ve been (mostly) “on the wagon” regarding cigarettes for the same six years I’ve been in the beer business. In that time, I’ve participated in and conducted dozens of sensory panels, blind tastings, and off-flavor trainings, as well as guided educational samplings. I’ve passed the Certified and Advanced Cicerone exams, both of which entail a fairly rigorous sensory examination. I have a decent palate, but I was also a smoker for much of my adult life. It leaves me wondering, sometimes: What am I missing?
It does seem likely that smoking depresses the sensitivity of both the taste and olfactory systems.”
It’s no secret that smoking is horrible for you, and the use of tobacco products has been on a precipitous decline for a long while: 20.9% of US adults smoked cigarettes in 2005, versus only 16.8% in 2014, according to the CDC. Combined with the social stigma, ever-increasing prices, and ever-decreasing number of places to smoke in public, combustible tobacco use seems to be on the way out. And craft beer lovers have an additional reason not to light up: That beautiful, flavorful beer you paid a dear price for may not smell or taste the same if you deaden your senses with an American Spirit beforehand, right?
The conventional wisdom that smoking impairs your ability to smell and taste is a slight oversimplification. I asked Dr. Susan Travers, a professor in the College of Dentistry at the Ohio State University, about how smoking affects the sense of smell and taste. Dr. Travers’ work centers on how the central nervous system processes sensory signals arising from the mouth. “It does seem likely that smoking depresses the sensitivity of both the taste and olfactory systems,” she said. “But the data are not entirely consistent across relevant studies.”
Dr. Travers pointed me to a forthcoming study outlining how variables, such as demographics and choice of tobacco product, can change the effects of tobacco on one’s sense of taste, which can make the relative level of impairment difficult to pin down. At the end of the day, it’s hard to quantify exactly to what extent smoking impairs your ability to taste, but it almost certainly does. On the beer side of things, it’s worth noting that both the Beer Judge Certification Program and Cicerone Organization recommend at the very least not smoking a day prior to a structured or scored beer tasting.
In as little as two days after quitting, a person may notice a heightened sense of smell and more vivid tastes as the nerve endings begin to heal.”
Given the fact that smoking does hinder a person’s ability to taste a smell, what happens when said person quits smoking?. According to Jennifer Folkenroth of the American Lung Association, “Recovering their sense of taste and smell is one of the first changes many smokers notice once they quit.” And this does happen. “In as little as two days after quitting, a person may notice a heightened sense of smell and more vivid tastes as the nerve endings begin to heal,” she said. However, not all the damage done by smoking is reversible. There’s ample research demonstrating how smoking cigarettes can permanently damage your taste buds, however—even and especially those responsible for detecting and experiencing bitter flavors.
Tasting beer is a skill. There’s a certain amount of physiological predestination involved, and a degree of innate talent, but it’s a skill that you can sharpen with experience and thoughtfulness. It’s also something you can dull and diminish. But lots of people who love craft beer, including many professionals whose jobs involve evaluating beer by taste and aroma, still smoke. While there aren’t statistics available specifically for the beer industry, Folkenroth told me, “In 2016, 27.9% of food and beverage serving adult workers were current cigarette smokers, compared to 15.4% of all adults.” In fact, of the 47 occupations included in the ALA survey Folkenroth cited, food and beverage workers “had the second-highest smoking rate behind only workers in the construction trades.” These are stressful, difficult jobs, in which the intersection of alcohol and nicotine is deeply ingrained, one often being a trigger for the other.
During a visit to Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, in October of 2013, I discovered the smoker isolation nook on my way to the portajohns. There, in a dim concrete tunnel that rings the Colorado Convention Center, ruddy-faced festival-goers gathered near chemical toilets to smoke furiously while huge industrial fans blew their polluted air back at them, away from the floor of the convention center and the tasting session within. I wondered, as I both stood in judgment and meekly sought to bum a cig of my own, what would cause someone to pay for the chance to taste a great many wonderful things, then willingly choose to impair their sense of taste. But of course I knew the answer.
Illustration by Remo Remoquillo