Boston Beer’s recent announcement that it was brewing a beer using beef heart created a hefty buzz across food and beer blogs (including this one) last week. While plenty of other writers and respondents have discussed the merits and ethics of using a beef heart in beer, the whole story offers an equally compelling opportunity to talk about savory flavors in beer.
No doubt, of our five basic tastes, umami (savoriness) and saltiness rarely show up in beer in desirable ways. Perhaps this is for good reason—many of the flavors associated with umami, in particular, are frequently tied to off-flavors in beer. These include brothy (yeast autolysis), cooked corn (DMS), and cheesy (old hops). Indeed, a quick re-read through the BJCP guidelines yields no mention of umami Salt gets a brief mention in the section on French Cider; gose is still not included in the style guidelines. Nor is peanut butter stout, yet.
But, if sour, sweet, and bitter beers can be tasty, than surely there’s some magic that can be done with savory flavors in beer, no? Rauchmalz heavy smoked beers evoke a hint of savoriness. Last winter’s oyster stouts at Upright and Fort George both made a case that mildly savory beers can be quite drinkable. The much hyped Bacon Brown Ale from Uncommon Brewers, which was featured at last year’s North American Organic Brewers Fest, didn’t do much for me, but one failed experiment does not damn the entire project of bacon beer. And my friend Andrew Hood—a brewer at Tallgrass Brewing in Kansas whose homebrewed barleywine and double IPA both medaled at the California State Fair—claims that his Candy Cap Mushroom Ale is his best beer.
I don’t know that adding beef heart to beer is the next big thing or whether it’s a media stunt or whether it counts as effective experimentation with the mysterious world of savory beer. But it may be a harbinger of things to come: as more mainstream and celebrity chefs engage with craft beer, this type of experimentation seems likely. In the world of postmodern dining, it’s not too hard to envision an interest in pairing savory beers to contrast with overly sweet desserts, amongst other experiments.
So, what will it take to make an excellent ‘savory’ beer? To get beyond gimmickry, we’ll need balance for one. I suspect darker base beers will make for better canvases; umami will get woven into a complex malt-driven flavor profile. As far as sources go, I expect there is some practical limit to what will work well: oysters, mushrooms, kelp, and smoked meat seem a better bet than offal, high end cuts of beef, or eggs. But perhaps that is where I get narrow minded.
Having never made an overtly savory brew myself, I’m interested to hear what folks think: does this adventure in flavor have any legs? Or is it the most passing of fads? And, has anyone brewed a savory beer they especially loved?