Having conducted a few tastings, I can safely say that anyone is capable of identifying flavours.
There are no right or wrongs in what flavours you personally find and how you identify with them. However, there is some science behind some very specific tastes. More specifically, there are flavour components that can be found in a whole variety of foods – a selection of these are known as terpenes.
Terpenes are a class of naturally occuring organic compounds which are abundant in the essential oils of plants. Essential oils being found in the “gummy” stuff exuded by plants and trees. Terpenes are also contributors to red, yellow and orange pigments. [encyclopaedia Britannica].
An organic compound is virtually any chemical that contains carbon; terpenes are molecules made up of 5 carbon atoms bonded to 8 hydrogen atoms in multiple chains (the smallest “monoterpene” is C10H16). They are often strong smelling compounds – monoterpenes are the most volatile, that’s why they give off fragrance.
When I first became aware of their existence I immediately made the connection with turpentine: the cleaner is made from pine resin, from which came the name. Terpenes can also be found in certain insects and butterflies, who use secretions with smell to deter predators. It also has an affect on some of their other development and behaviours.
In terms of the flavours that you will come across, Anethole is a terpene with an extra oxygen bond. It is an aromatic compound found in anise, fennel, sweet cicley and licorice.
Limonene, which has the taste and aroma of lemon peel, can be found in pine, hops, cannabis, and, as you may guess, citrus fruits. Therefore when drinking a gin made with pine needles people could suggest that their gin reminds them of grapefruit, or in a beer tasting, they might say a hop forward beer reminds them of cleaning fluid (limonene is in cleaning fluid).
Humulene is the terpene that gives beer that “hoppy” aroma. Myrcene, “the wonder terpene”, is found in overripe mangos, verbena, lemongrass, hops and wild thyme. Caryophyllene, you may have smelt in clove oil, rosemary or ylang-ylang. Linalool is the lavender scented terpene, a scent that can cheer us up by amplifying our serotonin levels.
Pinene, the chef’s favourite, is found in lime peel, grapefruit, juniper, and in spruce tips. Indeed, if you have wandered through a forest that contains more than its fair share of spruce trees you may well have caught a whiff of pinene – moreso during springtime when the tips are growing in abundance.
And if you are lucky enough to find yourself sitting under a tree in a spruce forest in the spring you may start to ponder if a tree thinks or acts in any way to change its environment (and I quite understand if you don’t). But if you do, then you’d be as well to look at the terpenes that the tree creates for answers.