New Brew Odyssey: Any Takers for Savory Beer?

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?


  1. I can see a savory beer working. It certainly would have to be a quality (refined) recipe versus a Dr. Frankenstein experiment. The mushroom beer sounds interesting...perhaps he is willing to share the recipe and Breakside can have a go?

  2. I've had a beer made with mushrooms from fantome before. I thought it worked really well.

  3. Kombucha might provide some style cues, no? I find it easy to imagine a kelp/nori/seaweedy kind of savory.

    This is a terrific piece! I love your structural approach to the flavors. Did you read Katherine Cole's piece on the Zing! game to food and wine pairing?

  4. I hope it has legs because I love the style! I've done the oyster stout, and a beef jerky stout. The meat flavor is definitely easier to blend with a darker base. I want to start experimenting with lighter meats, for example a honey and lobster lager. I do need to make another beer....

  5. I don't know. I'm not opposed to what other people do but I feel like this kind of experimentation gets a little silly. Doing things for the hell of it, instead of doing them because they would taste good.

    That said, I've considered using mushrooms in a brown ale-the flavors seem like they might compliment well. So I'm certainly not above trying new things myself and I don't want to discourage someone else from doing them.

    But there is a reason that we select beers as compliments to food, I think. I don't want to drink a liquid steak; I want to eat one and drink a fine beer with it. Maybe I'm just being curmudgeonly about it?

  6. I love brewing beers for the hell of it! When someone says "you can't put that in a beer!" or "that would taste terrible!" it inspires me to prove them wrong. No one thought the beef jerky stout would be good, but it was. Creamy body, pleasant nose, a slight sweetness, and an amazing meat flavor to it. When I told people I was making an oyster stout they gave me the most godawful look, but I got really good scores when I entered my oyster stout into the PCTBB comp(32/30/30 out of 50)and very good reviews from my friends. Yes, adding strange ingredients to beers can taste terrible, but THAT'S the challenge. I've had some beers with very common ingredients like fruit or spices that tasted terrible too! It's all about balance.


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