Distracted By Visions

“When we remove a sense—one of the five—we are temporarily heightening one of our other four senses,” Henry “Hoby” Wedler tells us. Hoby—our fearless olfactory explorer and tour guide through tastes—is a PhD student in Organic Chemistry at UC Davis and has been blind since birth. We, on the other hand, are a roomful of beer fans with silky, black, Fifty Shades of Grey blindfolds on, just this side of being seriously tipsy.

Hoby continues: “You put a blindfold on and focus on everything around you. You just sit and listen. You hear the refrigerator for the taps. You hear some glasswork clinking around you. You hear the kitchen. These are things that you might not be able to focus on if you were a little bit distracted by your vision. That’s what the blindfold does for us. It gives the opportunity to really focus on what’s going on around us. And, particularly this evening, it gives us the opportunity to focus on beer.”

Hoby’s right. The blindfolds are a bit disorienting—almost claustrophobic—at first. But rather quickly I’m able to really focus in on the flavors and smells of the beers we’re tasting; the way they cut through and mix with the incredible cheeses being served, the way they feel in my mouth.

The event, called Tasting in the Dark, is a super fun time, no doubt about it. Hoby helps us discover hidden (or hallucinated) flavors and aromas, from dried banana to clove, in a glass of Kellerweis, while we grope for the accompanying goat cheese, which we’re told has been placed right in front of us. When we’ve finished, an invisible phalanx of talented servers and/or magical gnomes replenishes our tables with one delicious beer and food pairing after another.

Getting buzzed with a group of happy strangers in blindfolds is guaranteed fun, I’m pretty sure. How could the evening not turn increasingly flirty and jokey and gropey? It’s actually a really good idea for a house party. Learning about the beer crafting process along the way is just bonus.

After the event, I got a chance to ask Hoby a few questions, and here they are:

You also do guided tastings at Francis Ford Coppola Winery. What’s more complex: beer or wine?

Wine is more complex in the organic chemistry that goes into it. But beer is more complex in how you can make it. You can’t add anything special to wine. But beer…you can add anything you want.

As soon as you said “lemon” or “mango” or whatever, I could taste those things. Are those tastes really “in there” or do we imagine them?

The flavors are in the beer. But they’re not formed by mango or lemon, per say. They’re formed by chemicals from the barley as it’s fermented. Or as alcohol dissolves compounds in barley that has unique flavor characteristics. Some really interesting studies have shown that the chemical composition in the aromas emanating from beer are nearly identical to the chemical composition in the traces coming off of those fruits [or spices, etc] people think they’re smelling. So, yes, they’re in there.

People love to fetishize intoxicants and wax poetic about them. Which intoxicant actually has the most dynamic flavors: beer, wine, coffee, cigars, or weed?

No comment on the last one (laughing). That’s a funny question. I would say beer and wine.

Your colleague, Chris, who I was sat next to by chance, said that you even do that passionate food describing thing (“I’m picking up on notes of…”) when you guys go out to junk food. Are there other things? Are you picking up notes and undertones all over the place?

Yeah! You gotta pay close attention. I’ve learned to listen to my nose. It’s a very important sense. You gotta really pay attention to what it’s telling you. Pay attention to every sense.

Beyond cutting out visual distractions, does being blind really heighten your other senses? Is your visual cortex rewired for other uses? Do you have super senses?

I don’t think my senses are any better. But sight is one of the most inefficient senses from a brain power perspective. First your brain has to flip the the image over. Then your mind has to [from here Hoby goes into some complicated cognitive science that I couldn’t keep up with, but which sounded pretty damn convincing, basically bashing on sight as our go to sense]. Your ears, though, for instance, are a lot more primordial. Your ears vibrate and your mind detects things basically immediately..

This is going to be in our Valentine’s Day issue: do you mind if I ask if being blind gives you any advantages in… le bedroom?

(laughing) Well, everything is just experience. I… People should focus more on what they feel, I think. In general, whether it’s sensual…whatever it is. The sense of feeling, the sense of touch. Stop looking so much.

Will you guys do this again?

Definitely. Don’t know when, but definitely.

Thanks Hoby, you’re the coolest.

About Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff

View all posts by Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff
Former busboy, sauerkraut-mixer, and Japanese hair model, Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff is a writer and father of two, living in Chico. After quitting a job as an Erin Brockovich-like legal investigator, then hitting rock bottom in a scene that involved roommates, tears, nudity and police officers, the UC Berkeley graduate decided to go for broke (and he’s accomplished his goal!) in the exciting world of small town weekly newspaper writing.