I used to live in Japan. Whenever I ate out with a group of Japanese friends, without fail, someone would always tell me about how Japanese cuisine was more complex because Japanese chefs understood umami.
So what is Umami?
It’s sometimes called the 5th taste. It was first identified in 1908 by Ikeda Kikunae (don’t you just love Wikipedia). It wasn’t acknowledged by Western science until later and continues to be ignored by school science text-book writers, but, like salt, sweet, bitter, and sour, it has its own taste receptors on the tongue.
The sensation that is umami is triggered by glutamate. Glutamate is found in some types of fish, seaweed, and cheese and is also the active ingredient in MSG.
Don’t stop reading.
Some people claim to react badly to MSG, but studies testing MSG against a placebo don’t show any statistically significant effect. Furthermore, glutamate occurs naturally in a lot of foods.
Designing Umami Beer
The love for MSG stops here. My beer may be bent, but it’s natural.
For inspiration I looked to Japanese food. Umami in Japanese food usually comes from the ubiquitous dashi which translates roughly as bouillon.
Recipes for dashi vary. Actually restaurants can make their name by their dashi. But typically dashi consists of soy sauce, konbu (dried kelp), katsuo-boshi (dried flaked tuna), iriko (some tiny dried fish), niboshi (dried sardines), and shitake mushroom alone or in combination. All of these ingredients are sources of glutamate, but the largest concentration of glutamate is found in konbu.
Konbu also does well when boiled for extended periods of time. If you’ve had shabu-shabu, that brown leathery square in the boiling water is konbu. If you haven’t had shabu-shabu, go try some. Now.
So konbu does well in a long boil. One piece of the puzzle.
Now what kind of beer to use as a base for my umami beer? I’m so great at building suspense when I’ve given everything away in the title.
Stout. And for a couple of reasons.
First, stout goes well with oysters. And something about the smell of the sea joins oysters and kelp in my mind more than other sea foods.
Second, the bitter roast flavours of a stout are of about the same intensity as konbu-dashi. I would guess that the hops in an IPA would beat up on the kelp and leave it for dead in a pile of cast-aside dry hops while the kelp would strangle a milder pale ale.
Brewing the Umami Beer and the Control
On brew day I made an extra large mash and created a normal stout with the extra wort. I use two large pots to get full volume rather than a single large brew kettle, so I added kelp into one, distributed the hops evenly between the two, and then used wort from the kelp-free pot to top off the main fermenter.
Since I was making full batch with an experimental ingredient I decided to go easy on the kelp in the boil and add more at bottling if warranted. I ended up boiling 2 strips of kelp in the wort and boiled another three strips creating a kelp tea which was added at bottling.
Next time I make a beer with dry ingredients that need long boils I’m going make a tea and add them at bottling. Tasting as I blended allowed me to get a perfect flavour balance.
Head to Head Tasting: Umami vs Control
Appearance: Both beers have the same colour. The head on the Umami Stout is a little smaller than the regular stout, but I didn’t measure my priming sugar carefully enough to say this is significant.
Aroma: Roast and chocolate aromas dominate both beers. The control stout seems to have more aroma than the Umami Stout. This comes as a bit of a surprise since umami is known to enhance aromas. I guess just not the aroma of stout.
Flavour: This is where the kelp leaves its mark. The control stout has a very sweet, rich flavour punctuated by coffee notes. The Umami Stout has more bitterness and a wonderful balance across the tongue. A spritzy feeling similar to carbonation from soda pop dances before everything fades into an extended bitterness.
Questions and Notes for Future Umami Beers
Umami didn’t enhance the aroma from roast malt, but it is supposed to enhance some aromas. What will umami do for hop aroma?
The Umami Stout is definitely noticably more bitter than the control stout. Does the extra bitterness come from bitterness in the kelp? or is it the umami enhancing the bitterness already present from the hops?
I think these questions point to trying an Umami IPA next. I happen to have an IPA ready for bottling right now so it shouldn’t be too long before I can find out how that works out.
Umami Stout Recipe
|Weight (lbs)||Weight (kgs)||Grain|
|10 lbs||4.54 kgs||2-Row|
|1 lbs||0.45 kgs||Roast Barley|
|1 lbs||0.45 kgs||Barley Flakes|
Hops and Adjuncts
|Weight (oz)||Weight (g)||Ingredient||Time|
|1 oz||28 g||Zeus/Columbus whole||90 min|
|2 strips||Dried Kelp (Konbu)||90 min|
|0.5 oz||14 g||Cascade||finish|
|3 strips||Dried Kelp Tea||after secondary|
Wyeast 1187: Ringwood harvested from lees
No water adjustments to local Pilsen-like water.
|Stage||Time / Temp|
|Mash In Temperature||149°F||65°C|
|Mash In Time||75 mins|
|Mash-Out Time||20 mins|
|Sparge Time||80 mins|
|Boil Time||90 mins|
IBU: approx. 20
Ferment Temp: 72°F 22°C