Blind tests or open tests? Are blind tests worth the effort? People have all sorts of opinions about this because there are different purposes for doing tests.
One purpose: guiding consumers to buy the best for them
For Cigar Sense, the purpose is guiding cigar lovers in finding the best cigars for them. As the sensory (mainly olfactory and gustatory) qualities of the cigar are important for this purpose, we rigorously test blind. In order to identify the most accurate and objective set of flavors that make up the core profile of the cigar, you want to be as unbiased as possible.
Another purpose: persuading consumers to buy based on symbols
This is different from testing to persuade people to buy based on symbols, meaning, for example, on the need to be accepted by certain social groups to achieve or maintain a status, or even just buy based on the brand or the tobacco blend or the hype of a newly released cigar.
Single taster or panel, is there any difference?
It is hard enough for a panel to eliminate biases, imagine how it is for just one single person. This is why in this episode we talk about panels more than individual tasters.
Another important aspect
In addition to the imperative of knowing as little as possible of the cigar that we test, and in order not to be influenced by the knowledge of the blend or of the tobacco that is used and of the brand, there’s also something very important.
It’s the imperative of focus.
Advantages of blind tests
Panelists who test blind can differentiate different components of flavors, they can break them down. As explained in A Cigar Tasting Course, it is important to be able to first recognize that sensations never come alone. You never get one aroma alone when you smoke a cigar, you get multiple sensations together. Be it more aromas together. Be it aromas and a few tastes, a few tactile sensations together with the nicotine and harsh sensations that come from the smoke. It can be confusing. Therefore, when testing blind, you can focus on what you’re sensing much better, and this allows you to more easily break down all of these elements.
Another advantage of testing blind within a panel is consistency, consistent results. Why? Not because panelists influence one another as they test. That is a bias to avoid. Consistent results are rather because normally panelists are trained to categorize and search for specific flavors or combinations of flavors. This happens thanks to a common, shared language.
On top of that, there is this element of focus, that is different from what you have when smoking for leisure. When in leisure mode, people usually tend to try to find words that support or justify what they like or don’t like in the cigar that is being smoked. Or people might say “I know this cigar is made with tobacco X, and this is why I am sensing aroma Y or aromas Y and Z. Here there is no point in testing blind. So, no worries, not every cigar lover needs to taste blind, although there are blind tastings set up for curiosity, for leisure too.
When it’s appropriate not to test blind
Guessing country or region of origin, or even a specific leaf within the blend, if you test blind within a panel, doesn’t provide more accuracy. Many experts do not test blind for this reason. In fact, because it’s very hard to identify the country of origin of the tobacco, especially when you are dealing with blends and not puros (cigars made with tobacco coming from a single country).
That’s why you need to have more information on the cigar to make some sense or compare the blend to the rest of the blends within a line or within the brand.
And for similar reasons, importers and distributors might decide not to test blind because they need to also assess the quality of a cigar based on characteristics that are normally not part of a typical blind descriptive test.
Alban Cordier’s viewpoint
Alban is one of our panelists at Cigar Sense and he is also part of the tasting panel of L’Amateur de Cigare, where tests are open.
“Actually for L’Amateur de Cigare we don’t usually do blind tests. Maybe it’s because of my approach of the cigar, I don’t blame open testing, but prefer blind testing because I am more about sensations than about memory. When we test cigars for Cigaroscope, we have cigars from different origins, but when doing it for Havanoscope we only have Cuban puros. Personally, as I smoke a lot of them, I know Cuban cigars very well, so I can compare with what I thought it would have been, and not only with what the cigar is right now. For a guide such as Cigar Sense clearly I prefer to smoke in a blind test situation. And I agree with you when you speak about this, so for me, it’s the right way to do it… don’t change anything”.
One of the objections when it is about testing blind, is that when you see the wrapper, then you can fall into the predictive confirmation bias trap very easily.
And tip to avoid it
In order to counter this problem, within the panel we recently discussed about starting to use color light bulbs. We are noting something interesting.
The colored light doesn’t fully mask the color of the wrapper. Besides, unless your hands are tied behind your back, you can still touch the wrapper 😉 But it helps us especially in focusing on the fact that we should not be trapped into the predictive confirmation bias as we work on our analysis.
So that’s actually a double benefit that we have from testing with color light bulbs.
The alternative tip by Zsolt Aranyos
“I tried to use sunglasses and it was a different experience. It works for me. Everybody could try because everybody has sunglasses at home.”
And this makes it easy also for the repeatability of the environment in which we test at home. It’s sufficient to wear the same sunglasses when testing.
Visual influence or not?
Getting rid of the biases is a very hard thing to do, especially because most of the time we might not be aware of them and we may not control the fact of being on the wrong path.
Reinhard Pohorec thinks that, in spite of that, it is possible to set their influence aside, even though there is a visual impact.
When using sunglasses or a colored light bulb, we somewhat mask what we see and we are reminded of the biases that we need to avoid.
This idea connects us to the priming guidelines that we follow as a ritual before the tasting, not only in organizing the environment in which we test, but also our buds, our receptors.
These tools have the function of reminding us that we are human beings. It is very normal to be biased, simply because we’re human beings. What we do is focus on avoiding as many biases as possible.
Reinhard proposes a fun exercise.
Alban Cordier adds a suggestion for another interesting exercise.
We recently spoke about this very topic with Aniello Buonincontro. Certainly many people choose cigars as symbols rather than as source of sensory pleasure. What is interesting to note is that many of them, while being happy for the status that the cigar helps them achieve or maintain, might still complain if a cigar does not meet their quality or flavor preferences. Human beings are so complicated…
Back to purpose
Also, obviously in this debate we wanted to address the purposes and the pro’s and con’s of blind tests rather than the reasons for which people choose cigars.
However, whether we are a consumer or a professional, we typically like and deserve to enjoy our cigars. And in this process we might be involved in some tests on an ad-hoc basis by cigar companies. But those tests (blind or open) are always hedonic in nature, meaning: rather than asking you to technically describe a cigar, you are rather asked to state or rate the cigar based on whether you like it or not. And this happens regardless of the reason for which we would buy the cigar, be it for the image you want to give or yourself or for the sensory pleasure we want to derive from the cigar.
So, again, it’s all about the purpose for which we are tasting blind here.
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