Umami: It’s Not About the Marriage—It’s About the Child
Most discussions regarding food and craft beer pairings emphasize the perfect marriages. It is remarkable to beginning beer enthusiasts how well beer pairs with certain foods.
I’ve recently discovered that fundamentally food and craft beer pairings are not about the marriage, nor the independent characteristics of food and beer. Pairings are about the child—the final result experience. It’s all about something called umami, a fifth taste sensation we all experience but are usually unaware of.
Most individuals can identify four of the five basic taste sensations that we experience in our mouth and with our tongue: salt, sweet, bitter and sour/acidity. Umami is the fifth dynamic taste sensation that we experience but usually fail to acknowledge with anything more than an elevation of silent or expressed pleasure.
What is Umami?
Umami is not a single flavor, rather it is a range of flavors; often insufficiently described as brothy or savory, with a particular associated mouthfeel. There are many different kinds of proteins in food, and it’s the triggering and intensification of certain protein flavors that results in umami.
Combining different elements of umami creates enhanced flavor experiences. Pairing acidic foods and beverages with umami proteins also intensifies flavor experiences. This is one of the keys to understanding how beer flavors interact with food to create the pleasure of umami.
Simply speaking, when enjoying meat, seafood and mushrooms (foods high in umami), we accent those foods with salt, sour/acidity and bitter flavors. Craft beer offers two out of three: sour/acidity and bitterness.
Foods Particularly High in Umami
- Soy sauce
- Fish sauce
- Parmesan cheese (the more aged, the more umami)
- Slow cured meat; prosciutto (the longer cured, the more umami)
- Anchovies, sardines, mackerel
- Scallops and oysters
- Ripe tomatoes
- Chinese cabbage
- Shitake and porcini mushrooms
- Seaweeds (particularly kombu)
- Slow and long cooked chicken and meat broths developed from cooking meat and bone
When enjoying craft beer with food it is worthwhile to understand:
- Umami often subdues sour/acidity, bitter and sweet
- Umami is elevated by sour/acidity, salt and bitterness
- Umami intensifies the taste of salt and sweet
- Umami balances bitter and sour/acidity
Common Umami Pairings Explained
Cheese is naturally a great pairing with craft beer. Cheese has protein umami, which is accented by salt in the cheese and the acidity in beer. The complex acidity of roasted grains in dark beer help elevate the pleasurable taste experience of the pairing. We say craft beer “pairs” well with cheese, but actually, the beer is elevating the umami of cheese—the child is the experience.
Oysters and Stout are a great combination, but it is the child—the emergence of a separate sensual flavor—that is the joy of this “marriage.” It is the acidity from the beer’s fermentation, and the contribution from the roasted malt and barley that triggers the emergence of umami proteins in oysters, resulting in a “wow” experience.
For those who have had the pleasure of miso soup in a Japanese restaurant or at home, it is the brothy elevation of umami that is the experience. Dried bonito flakes contain fish derived umami, but boiled in water alone the taste is flat and not that interesting. Kombu seaweed contains a high level of glutamate protein and is also quite boring when boiled in water and tasted alone. When these two elements are combined, along with the acidity of fermented miso, the taste experience is highly elevated.
Umami and Craft Beer Pairings to Try
- Parmigiano Reggiano and Porter
- Spanish Sardines and IPA
- Aged Prosciutto and Pilsner
- Grilled Shitake Mushrooms and American Pale Ale
Food and craft beer is not about the marriage—it is about the child. Keep it simple; bring out umami. Elevate pleasure.
Charlie Papazian is the author of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, founder of the Great American Beer Festival, the American Homebrewers Association and the Association of Brewers. He is also the president of the Brewers Association. He works, lives and still enjoys making homebrewed beer in Colorado.