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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are Flavorings the Future? Probably

Note: I'm away from my computer for a while, so I'm re-posting some of my favorite items from the past years. Enjoy--
A thought experiment. Imagine that you sat down at a pub to try the new, say, Ninkasi Hopposaurus and were stunned by the aroma--a piquant blend of passion fruit, black pepper, and sea breeze. The flavor is even more amazing: the hops have a quality you've never encountered before--lavender, white tea?--and the body is rich, lustrous, like creme brulee. You wonder how they did this. A new variety of hop, oats in the grist, maybe something more exotic? And then you learn the truth: it's actually a combination of chemical compounds, labda8(17) and gamma-decalatone, added by a flavorist from Cincinnati.

This is what ran through my mind as I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker a couple weeks ago, "The Taste Makers" by Raffi Katchadourian.
"More than half of Givaudan's business--which generates nearly four billion dollars in revenue a year--is built on deceiving our senses when we eat. The consumption of food flavorings may stand as one of the modern era's most profound collective acts of submission to illusion. When you watch a movie of look at photographs or listen to an iPod, you tend not to forget that what you are taking in has been recorded and re-created for you in some fashion....

"Placed in the context of art history, the flavor industry today would be in its modernist phase, somewhere in the waning days of Cubism, for even the most outlandish flavor concoctions take direct inspiration from the real world. Whereas a perfumer can invent commercially successful aromas that are totally nonrepresentational--a Pollock in a crystal bottle--the flavorist must still respect the deeply held conservatism that people tend to hold when it comes to putting food in their mouths. Snapple's use of kiwi-strawberry flavoring in a juice drink may seem unusual ... but we can imagine that the flavor is authentic--that it captures some platonic gastronomic truth."
Apostasy, surely. Treating beer like the latest energy drink is unthinkable, even if it is just to draw out the flavor of hops--even if it just uses some synthetic molecules discovered to be resident in hops. This would take us back to the bad old days of additive-rich, taste-poor macrolager from the 1970s.

Actually, I doubt it. As the article later points out, citrus flavor has already been added to beer (presumably Miller Chill or Bud Light Lime) chemically. Is it really such a long step before Sam Adams or Dogfish or Widmer give it a whirl? And really, if they did, so what--isn't that more or less the history of beer, anyway?

Beer and Additives
You can get alcohol by fermenting malted grain in water, full stop. You don't need gruit infusions or hops. But unspiced beer is undrinkable. So to balance things out, brewers started dumping stuff in. We know that the original debate about additives is at least 500 years old--when Bavarians decided that any spice more exotic than hops (water and malt okay; the later inclusion of yeast came only after brewers discovered its existence) was verboten.

But okay, in the modern era, we're not so Reinhetsgebot. Organic additions are kosher: coriander, cherries, even chocolate. We're still on all-natural footing. What then to make of hop pellets and hop oil?--they're not exactly a natural product. You don't just find hop oil pooling out there in the fields. Still, it's naturalish--no petrochemical juicing or anything unseemly like that.

But what about synthetic hop oil, made to be identical, molecule by molecule, to regular hop oil. Or just synthetic alpha acid, again, molecularly identical to organic alphas. Would that be all right? The line becomes quickly unclear.

And anyway, haven't we already strayed pretty far from "natural?" Barley has been genetically trained to be perfectly suited to brewing. It has gone through generations of training, straying pretty far from the original genome that the first Egyptians used. Hops? Is there even a single native strain used in brewing? If it's okay to tinker with the molecular biology of a plant, why not just skip the biology altogether and go straight to the molecule?

Human Perception
In a certain sense, there's no reason we shouldn't tweak flavors to suit our preferences--it's the same process that got us to food in the first place, except in reverse (we don't evolve to enjoy food, we make food evolve for more enjoyment). Here's a delightful passage from the article:
"Flavor is a cognitive figment. The brain fuses into a single experience the results of different stimuli registered by the tongue, nose, eyes, and ears, in addition to the memories of previously consumed meals. For reasons that are not fully understood, we perceive flavor as occurring in our mouths, and that illusion is nearly unshakeable, as is made clear by our difficulty identifying, with any reasonable specificity, the way each of our various senses contributes to the experience....

"Taste receptors are blunt instruments. With taste alone, one cannot distinguish a grape lollipop from a watermelon one; coffee is like hot water with a bitter aftertaste, and Coke a bland sugary solution. The limits of taste are unsurprising when one considers its evolutionary purpose. Our biological progenitors, living in the wilderness, needed to know only what was worth eating and what wasn't....

"Smell is a more supple and primordial sense, and its centrality is evident in the way the human brain is arranged. Our forebrains evolved from tissues that once focussed on processing smells, and there are three hundred or so olfactory receptors in the nose. When we taste or see or hear something, the information must pass through the thalamus, a kind of relay station in the brain that allows us to attend to different aspects of perception.... Smells, for the most part, are fed directly from the nose to the 'presemantic' part of the brain where cognition does not occur and where emotions are processed."
Flavor is not like sound or shapes--things our senses can perceive directly and about which we can find wide agreement. Instead, it is a nested experience that has the capacity to transport us experientially miles and decades away. In Harold and Maude, Maude owns a machine that can emit aromas. But it's purpose is really to recreate experience:
''Snowfall on 42nd Street!'' Harold inhales. ''What do you smell?'' she demands. ''Subway?'' he asks. She nods. ''Perfume. Cigarettes.'' He coughs . . . then there's a pause. With quiet wonder, he says, ''Snow.''
Beer is not separate from other foodstuffs. We hold an almost Hindu-like view of purity and pollution around the nature of "natural" ingredients, but this is cultural, not innate. If a brewery could evoke not just the flavor of 18th Century England with a version of Entire Butt Porter, but the experience of Victorian England?--it would do it in a heartbeat. Maybe that kind of transformation isn't possible, but subtler evocations are. We already do a pretty fair job of summoning an image of "green" with our native, hoppy beers, what if we could just add a bit of the experience of a fern-floored, old-growth fir forest in for added measure?

Now it is just the macros using the latest flavor du jour to hawk cheap beer. But flavorings could be used to a higher purpose. When the Belgians began dumping weird adjuncts into their beers, the Germans rejected it as a corruption, but the Belgians were just following the flavor. Now we revere their concoctions. Synthetic flavorings are now considered a pollution. But one day? They will probably define what we think of as world class; and from that distant vantage, they'll look back on our crude "natural" beers the way we look back on those infected, burnt beers people made in Medieval Europe.

Photo: Vanier College

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