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Beware the “cellar palate” phenomenon and how it applies to the wider beverage industry

The concept of “cellar palate” is well documented in the wine industry and a cause for concern, not only in the wine industry, but in the FMCG industry in general.

Matt Walls from Decanter magazine defines it as “becoming so immersed in a local style of wine that you become blind to its shortcomings”. The most common way in which it manifests is where winemakers are so used to the style of wine that they produce that they will often pick it as the best wine in a blind line-up, even if it’s not.

Acclaimed wine-writer, Jancis Robinson, believes that this phenomenon is not limited to winemakers but also to any wine enthusiast or industry professional who does not taste wine widely enough. In her example, tasting typically “green” wines from New Zealand can make wines from other regions taste “riper” than they are because one is accustomed to the more unripe styles.

This phenomenon is not limited to the wine industry. In the food industry, manufacturers also become accustomed to the sensory profiles of their own products in various ways.

Dr Leanie Louw ǀ MD at SenseLab

“We spend a lot of time tasting our own products at work. At home, we typically use our own company’s brands. When we develop new products, we become invested in the prototypes and have a biased idea of how they would perform in the marketplace,” says Dr Leanie Louw, MD of boutique sensory evaluation consultancy, SenseLab.

“However, our consumers are not as brand loyal as we are. They may cheat on their usual brands due to promotions or convenience. Consuming an alternative brand to their usual choice may lead them to realise that a competitor’s product is superior to ours.

“Yet we often don’t realise that our products are lacking because we have become accustomed to our own products as the category champion in our own minds.”

How do you ensure that product bias doesn’t harm?

The short answer to this question is ensuring objectivity in product sensory evaluation.

“First, when we want to determine consumer acceptability, we cannot test internally, however tempting that may be. We must test with target market consumers to get a true representation of the potential of the product,” says Louw.

“Secondly, when we want to determine the sensory profile of a product, albeit to validate recipe changes or benchmark against competitors, it is better to test with an external, objective panel. This may be a trained panel that is part of your company’s sensory division, or a trained panel from a service provider.

“The benefit of external trained panels is that they are not involved in the project and are not informed about the purpose of the test which means that they are more objective and less biased towards your product.

“Trained panels should ideally NOT consist of company employees as they are inherently biased and subject to the cellar palate phenomenon.

“It is also important to continuously do category assessments to ensure that we are exposed to a variety of product styles in our category, those that are worse than our own products as well as those that are better.” she concludes.

About SenseLab: SenseLab offers independent sensory and consumer testing to the FMCG industry. It was established in 2018 by sensory evaluation specialist, Dr Leanie Louw. With her experience in sensory evaluation, corporate R&D, and continuous improvement, she was the perfect fit to spearhead this bespoke player in the sensory research field. Initially, SenseLab was focused on serving the alcoholic beverage industry, but now serves the wider foodbev industry.

More detail about the company and their services can be found at www.senselab.co.za

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