How you like that umami?

20:40, Jun 19 2014

I am one of those people who will always pick savoury over sweet.

Sure, I love cake as much as the next person, but there is something so much more satisfying about savoury food.

For a long time I was not able to put my finger on it, but everything clicked when I learned what exactly we taste.

There's sweet, salt, sour and bitter. That is what we are taught when we are young.

But there is also that fifth taste - umami.

Umami is that savoury taste, set off by our tongues coming into contact with glutamates.


Glutamates, specifically glutamic acid, are naturally occurring in many foods.

Ripe tomatoes are red glutamic acid grenades, but most will only know of glutamates from monosodium glutamate (MSG).

That powder is like magic fairy dust, instantly going Spinal Tap on savoury food by turning the flavour up to 11.

But MSG has had a bad rap ever since Robert Ho Man Kwok alleged the food at Chinese restaurants gave people strange reactions.

The symptoms were blamed on MSG, but no testing was done by Kwok to check this.

While many restaurants will now proudly exclaim they do not use MSG, there is no evidence it is bad for you.

In fact, Food Standards Australia New Zealand says MSG is safe for all but less than 1 per cent of the population.

While I do not know of MSG being thrown into beer, umami is present in many brews.

Most think of beer being sweetened with malt and bittered with hops.

While sourness and even saltiness can come into play, umami is not often discussed when tasting beer.

But savoury flavours in beer are nothing new.

You will not find it in a bright lager. Instead, head to the dark side to see what I mean.

I first noticed umami in beer when I shared this bottle of Yeastie Boys PKB Remix 2010 with beer writer Phil Cook.

The beer tasted like a chocolate-coated orange due to the liberal use of American hops and dark malts, but also had a distinct savoury, Marmite-like flavour before a dry finish.

Yes, that sounds disgusting, but the umami helped fill the gap between the candy-like aroma and dry finish; it was a bridge that took you over what would otherwise be chasms in the beer's palette.

While the PKB Remix was made with hops, malt, water and yeast, it is possible to add ingredients to create umami in the beer.

If anyone was going to do it, it was going to be Garage Project.

Creators of beers including chilli, mint, lime, green coffee beans and many other odd ingredients, the Wellington brewers know how to take things a few steps further than almost all others.

Their Umami Monster, though, is arguably the maddest sounding beer they have ever made.

There is no way of even pretending it is close to a normal beer; kelp, smoked malt, sea water and katsobushi (that's dried, fermented bonito flakes) have been combined to make something which sounds closer to fish sauce than beer.

If you put a glass of it in front of someone without telling them what it was, they would probably spray the first sip back at you.

But when you know what you are drinking, Umami Monster is a flavour explosion.

The smoked malt combines with the oceanic ingredients to make, well, a glass of umami.

While not everyone will want to drink something like Umami Monster, no one should be worried if they think they taste Marmite or soy sauce in their beer.

There is nothing wrong with umami in your beer, just as long as you like how it tastes.

Manawatu Standard