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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Are Flavorings the Future? (Probably.)

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


  1. How do we classify compounds added to beer for purposes other than taste? How do we classify fining agents?

  2. Interesting article and as always, great writing.

    Have you ever considered putting sharing links (ie. facebook, twitter, email, etc) on your blog posts. I'd love to be able to quickly and easily share some of your posts with some of my less beer geeky friends. Yeah, I know I could just copy and paste the URL but I'm that lazy, really I am.

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  4. I see FDA involvement and government regulation on labelling if this was the direction the industry ends up going. Seeing how all commercially produced foods must list out all ingredients and compounds (ie: Red Dye 5, disodium phosphate, etc).

    I fear some government regulation, but I am more concerned for what it means for the integrity of the craft brewing industry. I do view processed foods as generally less-healthy, lower-quality products (even though they may taste great). I'd probably begin to view craft beers in the same way if additives/chemicals/flavoring compounds were included that were not basically organic ingredients or extracts of pure ingredients.

  5. Great post Jeff, thanks. Kudos for whipping out the Harold and Maude reference from the 'ole tool belt.

    I'm particularly curious about the backlash synthetic ingredient use causes in the craft beer community. My perception is that craft beer drinkers tend to be a sensitive group, quickly contemptuous of something deemed inferior. Inorganic materials seem to be easy fodder for this attitude.

    As Brent indicates there's a strong possibility the consumer dismisses these beers as either unhealthy, technically inferior, or both.
    Essentially, I wonder if the pleasure vs. pride battle will allow chemical use to be a viable ingredient, or will folks just perceive those brewers as lazy and/or illegitimate.

  6. Brent said, "Seeing how all commercially produced foods must list out all ingredients and compounds (ie: Red Dye 5, disodium phosphate, etc)."

    That's where the problem lies; beer isn't considered food, and legally can't contain the standard "nutrition facts" labeling that all foods are required to have.

    There's already a wide array of different chemicals being used in beer; fining agents (to help clarify the beer), artificial colors, and foam stabilizers just to name a few.

    I'm all for regulation if it's for the sake of keeping consumers informed as to the calories and carbs of their chosen drink, but I have to draw the line at the FDA (or TTB) telling breweries they can't use a common substance like coffee in their beer.

  7. Great topic and information.

    Though the experience of beer involves alot of things, in the end it comes down to flavor. If synthesized flavorings can taste good and they are perceived as "normal" ingredients, then the beer will be well received.
    However, I, for one, think nature does the best job of creating flavors. The more "processed" a product is the less likely it is to taste good, in my opinion. Basic adulterations like heating and mixing in conjunction with naturally occurring organisms like yeast or enzymes make for better flavors, I think.
    That said, my favorite malt, Golden Promise, was created by shooting gamma rays barley to create mutations.

  8. I think a better question is how many of your average Ninkasi drinkers in Eugene or Portland would care enough to look it up or care when they find out? As long as PBR is the beer of choice in Oregons cities I'll say not many.

  9. Great posting; worthwhile comments.

    Similar but different, Anheuser-Busch is expanding the frontiers of flavored beer. Among the 12 Budweiser labeled-brands, 3 are flavored. Among the 23, count'em 23, Michelob labeled-brands, 4 or 5 are flavored, depending on definition.

    btw1, did these 3 dozen variants exist before INBEV?

    btw2, I notice in SW_Fla, Anheuser-Busch's many variants occupy a significant portion of grocer cooler space. Not a marketing error, no doubt.

  10. Anon, good point on the finings. In fact, brewers do put some random stuff in beer not related to flavor--stuff most people wouldn't call "natural."

    Shawn, I do have a Twitter feed and shamelessly tweet nearly every post. Look to the right-hand column for the link.

    Brent and Josh, I think if this did start to happen, there would certainly be a market--as there already is--for organic beer. For what it's worth, although I would happily drink flavored beer (if it were tasty), I don't know that I could ever bring myself to brew it, even homebrew it. There's something about the act of brewing that links me in to an ancient lineage. It's a rite as much a product to me, and tricking it out with synthetics defeats the purpose. But this isn't an ethical position.

    Jack, I suspect that when flavorings do hit the market, they will hit other markets first. Oregon will almost certainly not lead that particular wave of innovation. Not our style.

    (And I chose Ninkasi as an amusing case because it seems like Jamie Floyd and his Eugene ethos would be about the last to adopt synthetics. I was amused by the thought.)

  11. I think that you should do what ever you can to make a radical beer to drink.