When developing a drink, your flavor and ingredient choices should be determined more by your chosen target market than by your personal taste. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t unusual to see people making the mistake of creating a product they want instead of what their market wants. One aspect of that market you need to consider is age. As people get older, their sense of taste evolves and preferences change. The beverages you enjoy today are probably completely different than what you drank as a child.
Humans are born with over 9,000 taste buds on their tongue, the most that a person will ever have. At birth, we are as sensitive to flavors as we ever will be. This helps explain why children are averse to bitter flavors with low “taste thresholds”, like black coffee and dark chocolate. Taste thresholds are the different minimum levels that flavors can be detected. Bitterness has the lowest taste threshold, meaning that only a small amount is needed to taste it. When you were a kid, you likely turned your nose up to black coffee when you were most sensitive to the bitterness, but have learned to enjoy the flavor in your adulthood as the sensitivity of your taste buds has diminished. This explains why we don’t see coffee flavored drinks or bitter flavors marketed towards children. In contrast, saltiness and sweetness have the highest taste threshold. If you’ve ever marveled at how children can drown their food in salt and sugar without being bothered, this is why.
The taste buds we have when we are young are constantly regenerating, but around the age of 40 taste buds begin to shrink and also cease to regenerate as effectively. By the age of 60, many people may begin to lose the ability to differentiate between the flavors of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter foods. A common misconception is that elderly people need their food to be bland and under-seasoned. The truth is that it actually needs to be over-seasoned to create the same effect they were used to in their younger years. So if you’re making a product targeted at an older market, consider increasing the intensity of the flavor. And since our sense of smell follows the same trajectory (and taste relies heavily on our sense of smell), you might want to amp up your aromas as well. Not only does something need to be tasty, it needs to have an enticing smell, too.
It makes sense that most drink products are designed for adults between the ages of 18 and 60 – that’s the sweet spot when the biggest group of people has the most control over what they drink, and have a strong sense of taste. But if you’re in that group and want to make products for people outside it, you have to keep in mind that your target market literally doesn’t taste the same way you do!