Friday, January 15, 2010

Umami, mama!!!

Well among the perceptions found in beer- sweet, sour, salty, and bitter there remains a largely overlooked division. That fifth category is UMAMI!!!!

Now as a person who attempts to educate others- Umami isn't something I come across often enough, nor is it something easily detected by the ones I teach, at least not in an appropriate context. Umami is a certain meatiness found in Asian cuisine, namely fish sauce and soy sauce. It is exhibited in broths and shrimp. It isn't that much different than A-1 steak sauce. Umami isn't a catch-all type of category, but rather a specialized area that has receptors in the human body just as another category (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) would have.

Now, the bulk of "umami" perception lies within beer- to me at least. We must consider that it is a thin slice of the savory pie and that as such, I consume more beer than anything else (second and third place going to fries and buffalo chicken respectively). Despite this truth, umami isn't even that apparent to me and is the holy grail of taste perception to beer nerds like me.

I know what you guys are thinking...

I want to taste "umami,' how do I get my hands on it?

Let me say this. "Umami" is a fickle mistress with many twist and turns. Usually, serendipity is umami's counterpart. I was lucky enough to enc outer umami through a six pack of 2007 (that's right) Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine. These bottles had twist off caps which may have helped to facilitate slight oxidation and the further mellowing of flavors associated with aged/umami ridden beer. The beer itself poured an opaque color of rust. Minimal carbonation was to be found, but a slight saltiness was abound in a sea of meat heft laden with dark flavors only comparable to aged steak runoff and soy sauce with a dash of ponzu pepperiness. In fact, an overall green peppercorn flavor prevailed over a sweet maltiness that would have surely dominated this brew upon initial turnout given that this was a Sierra Nevada product.

Umami isn't always purposely intended as a part of a brew's flavor profile. It is rather a part of the noble aged beer category. Over time as beers are allowed to naturally develop, mellowing ales pick up such subtle complexity that it is often said to not have occurred at all by naive palates. In fact, most beer drinkers would consider the beers "fouled" and not as "seasoned" as they actually would be.

This denomination alone can be used to calibrate the learned from the young and is an integral part of any serious beer drinker's repertoire. Sometimes, you just have to be lucky enough to find a beer that has been aged for you purposely or inadvertently.

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