Sensory analysis, questions and reactions

 

Since the publication of our article Sensory analysis, a misunderstood discipline, a number of questions and reactions followed. They have been shared in Facebook groups, however, as we believe this might be useful to non Facebook users too, we are trying to respond here as well.

 

“For me “to taste” means “to judge”, whether a single or a panel does it makes little difference (in the definition). Obviously the method changes. Do you understand it differently?”

Tasting is the non-casual exposure to stimuli that involve our senses. For most of us it is difficult to avoid hedonic (liking) reactions, which lead us towards judgment. It is up to the framing and the definition of the methods to distinguish the tasting and to make it become a tool from the school year.

 

“Sensory analysis applies more to food products. In extending it to the cigar, the fact that this is not a food is neglected. Have you ever focused on what factors should be added or excluded to the sensory analysis process?”

In rigorous sensory tests, the question is not so much the object of the evaluation, but the objective. Testing location and parameters are almost  identical for all contexts, it’s the behind-the-scenes preparation and presentation practices that change, not the task itself. In the case of the cigar, the element of “at home testing” had to be considered, since we are not allowed to use any laboratory. It immediately takes on a semblance of a hedonic approach, but the element of personal routine is important. We have had to introduce increasingly rigorous guidelines that indicate which prejudices and distractions to avoid. Our training is continuous. At our meetings we do not exchange opinions on cigars, we focus on training.

 

The results of a Panel are obtained by applying statistical techniques to the data provided by the panelists and one of the first things that is done is a cut of the data that deviate from the average. When this happens, and psychic processes are involved, what can occur is that the subject who sees his results not included tends to adapt and over time the data he provides tends to conform. This can be seen as experience, education, but have you thought it could be an adjustment, a sort of adaptation of the subject to the group? This deprives the group of those particular abilities that that individual possesses. 

This phenomenon leads the panel’s results to flatten out and if a producer favors this trend, he risks a drift in the characteristics of his products.”

Adaptation and conformity are well-know phenomena that are driven by panel-interaction – a good reason to have panelists tasting individually and blind. It is true that the list of attributes, for example, may be restrictive, which is why two aspects are continuously emphasized: 1. revisiting the vocabulary to determine if it needs modification, and 2. Encouraging each individual panelist to always report additional perceptions they may have. The statistics are not there to exclude, but to verify: If an individual is reliable and consistent in finding a specific attribute (that nobody else finds), that is a very important finding also. The initial trouble is only in determining that it is indeed a recurring, reliable attribute.

The whole of the data is not generally seen by each panelist and the objective is description, not judgment. Descriptive analysis is fundamentally different from judgements and point ratings, as there is not right, wrong or “best”.

The fallacy you describe is fundamentally one of marketing focus-groups: Consumers themselves, when given the opportunity to ask for EVERYTHING they like, do not make the best decisions (see Pontiac case).

But descriptive analysis as a tool is neutral until additional data is introduced to focus on a particular aspect, but it is still fundamentally non-judgmental by design and this enhances the product rather than driving it adrift, because a manufacturer must always take into consideration at least the degree of incidence and the actual importance that the consumer gives to a characteristic of the cigar, with its dry evaluation and the correlation with the measurements of the panel.

 

“You affirm that the applications of sensory analysis concern the world of producers, who are facilitated the path towards consumer tastes. Like all market phenomena, however, the individual is drowned in the average (this seems an existential discourse, I am aware of it, but it is the famous discourse on “medietà”, on conforming, which sociology deals with).”

Companies use sensory internally for consistency. The value of having consumer data is NOT to trend towards the mean, but rather to validate existing products and identify unoccupied niches – product spaces that would have consumer liking, but no products catering to those yet. It also helps with understanding the segmentation of consumers, as there is no universal preference beyond very basic minimum requirements. There is the unresolved, elusive topic of aesthetic/harmony etc. that we do seem to have an innate sense for, but attempts at exploiting that have generally failed due to turning out as mediocre or not distinctive…

The courage of “medietà'” could be called discernment. And it is for this reason that Cigar Sense personalizes the advice and does not publish generic judgments that speak to a wide range of consumers. In fact, how can you guarantee a consumer the pleasure from a product if you don’t listen to it, if you try to dictate what is good and what is not good according to your personal standards? This denies the variability of the personal tastes of each individual. Obviously there is always a certain level of conformity that arises, after all we do not live in airtight compartments, but we are social and intelligent animals. So if I didn’t like a cigar but I smoke it again and reconsider my position, I conform to those who love that cigar. What matters to me is that this update of my preferences is useful for making better and meaningful choices in respect of the fact I am an individual.

The purpose of all these methodologies is to recognize and improve outliers. A taster who reproducibly recognizes a unique attribute generates valuable information.

There is a reason why all unique, local, regional and protected origin products are pursuing similar paths to accumulate technical-analytical results and associate them with sensory studies: identify their uniqueness, their standards and codify / protect them.

 

“What do you think of the fact that learning the functioning of the senses, mental and social mechanisms can be useful for the individual to preserve his individuality, without becoming data to be mediated? I know, it’s a strong image. In the end, I believe, learning to taste, or to understand a cigar and judge, is a way to be more yourself and you can say: “I enjoy the cigar”.”

We agree with you on avoiding making the consumer a datum to be mediated. Truth is people want to be empowered, but need information, context, education, and just overall tools to become knowledgeable and capable/confident. That is why Cigar Sense offers training to all cigar lovers (consumers and professionals) who want to increase their awareness and recognition of the factors that influence their free choice, with the aim of optimizing the pleasure of the cigar.
If you really want to talk about data, there is a difference between big data and small / deep data. The latter offer a breath of fresh air when you want to do your own disintermediation, i.e. you want to move away from generic – (or manipulated by profit-motives) product finders of large e-commerce sites and social influencers – to connect producers and consumers in a personalized way (if you can sell me what I really like, I’ll be back tomorrow and buy more). In any case, here we are talking about a (still) little explored niche.

 

“If sensory analysis could be used in the tobacco world, it could be only in the part in which the industrial process prevails on the peculiarity of the single product. For example, if I had mechanical manufactured tobacco, I could surely get an homogeneous product; if I instead use the same quantity of leaves leaving everything in the expert hands of a torcedor to roll the cigar then it can be understood how getting similar kinds of products is simply magical.”

While we appreciate the desire to preserve the “mystique” of the cigar, sensory exploration does not aim to discard it.

The same discussion must be had, and has been had, for all other emotional products: no two steaks are the same, even off the same cow, and no two  batches of milk made into cheese on two subsequent days are technically the same, but all these industries have established internal parameters to control a basic character of the product. Even highly protected, unique foodstuffs are using sensory analysis to enhance the definition of what makes them unique in order to protect them.

Any cigar manufacturer, from the tabaquero to the factory manager, tells us their main goal is production consistency, because otherwise the mere notion of “marcas” and brand profiles would be completely meaningless from the onset. The same cigar vitola inside a brand will have some variation among samples, but the producer strives to preserve the core profile. Objective sensory analysis seeks to track this variability as part of the bigger picture of what a cigar is, and can only do so by having multiple people assess multiple samples of the same vitola. This also serves to illustrate and utilize the inherent differences of the taster – a basic vocabulary and training are necessary, but the unique subjective impressions should also be accounted for, and enhance our understanding at that point in time.

This will, by necessity, require of the taster to disregard – or at least consciously reflect on – the inherent emotional response of the experience, as this is deeply personal and cannot be reliably translated for others.

 

“Tobacco, given its natural state, can brew in the box or in a conditioned place. Even after being harvested it can change its molecular structure until decay: this can happen even when temperature and URL are taken into account. So, given time, the cigar gets ripe but at the same time the nicotinic charge and the essential oils can weaken.”

On the subject of the variability through storage and aging, we are talking about a deeply beloved niche that is unique to a very small group of connoisseurs who find added enjoyment and value in this aspect. These are, by definition, NOT the consumers who seek guidance or advice and understanding through other people’s evaluations. Sensory science could provide a snapshot of even this elusive pursuit by assessing vintage cigars, or even doing consecutive tastings of the “same” vitola/marca over a span of production years. However, these would have become so variable that the experience could not be reproduced. In that same vein, most readers of a “100 point” rating for one vintage cigar will hopefully assume that a cigar of the same age will/may not provide that very same, sublime experience.

It is like the average wine consumer vs. the collector: every day consumers of wine usually buy a bottle off the shelf and will consume it at home that same night. They will usually be looking for guidance on certain characteristics they enjoy, without any interest in how a collection of that wine will taste with age. You can also see bottle to bottle variation within the same case of wine, and packaging also imparts differences, which itself is the amalgam of millions of individual grapes, which were all slightly different from each other, and then turned into a dozen or so individual barrels that each were noticeably different from each other before being blended to make a final product.

Either we deem the entire pursuit of understanding the big picture of experiences obsolete, or we recognize that a large part of that spectrum may be tackled for some degree of understanding – even just the understanding of differences, or the ultimate admission of science – “we don’t know exactly”. It is up to the individual and the individual project to determine what is worthwhile, but the fact of the matter is that there is a large need of consumers seeking insight and guidance to their pursuit of pleasure – to then freely explore all the fascinating fringes that we cannot representatively grasp.

 

Recent studies on the molecular orientation of the smoke produced during smoking have shown that a molecule can, oriented in one direction, cause fruity-floral olfactory complexes and specifically apple notes , plum, rose, raisin, tea, black currant and tobacco; otherwise oriented wood, cedar, violet-raspberry. That is, an extra puff and the increase in temperature generate different perceptions. How do you code all this?

Chemical analysis helps to detect the presence of components in a matrix, but then it are the human senses, through sensory analysis, that translate the expression of the molecules into a language that other humans can understand. Taking into account that, from start, in tobacco blends there is little of the character of the individual components that originated it. Furthermore, there are molecules that have the ability to inhibit others so that, if they are together, they will not be sensed distinctively, nor in another way, but only one of the two will be felt. These games drive you crazy, but they make sensory analysis even more interesting.

 

Finally, at Cigar Sense we do not claim to be a flawless predictor of what any given consumer will experience when smoking any particular cigar. There is no flawless predictor, for reasons we’ve observed above. However, we do claim to be the most reliable predictor available anywhere thanks to our process and our trained panel. And our consumer feedback bears this out as we have always maintained a 90%+ consumer satisfaction feedback.

 

Franca Comparetto and Constantin Heitkamp (PhD Sensory Science)

 



Cigar Sense predicts which cigars best fit your personal taste. We are committed to preserve the highest objectivity, integrity and independence in the creation and dissemination of our analyses and industry analytics. This is why we do not sell cigars, nor cigar ads.

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