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Umami and Beer… Cheers!

By July 22, 2015May 20th, 2022MSG, Savory Cuisine Corner
umami beer

Every time I hear Chef Chris Koetke talk about umami, something unexpected comes up in the Q&A. (In Atlanta, it was about the high free glutamate content in breast milk, but that’s a different blog!) Last week, at the Florida Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (FAND) meeting, Chef K was asked whether adding a touch of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, would have the same effect as salt when added to beer.

I have never added salt to beer and wasn’t sure why anyone would be so inclined. But an Internet search revealed that, although the origins are unclear and the reasons varied, many people do. Some say it makes beer less bitter; others that it gives immediate head to the beer, for those who like foam. Chef K was intrigued by the question, but didn’t know the answer. So I was delegated to run to the lobby bar to pick up a couple of IPA’s (short for India pale ale – which I’d never heard of).

Chef K took a glass and added just the smallest pinch of MSG into a glass he’d filled with IPA. Sure enough, the beer immediately foamed over like crazy. But then, the important test: what was the impact on taste? Chef K took a slow sip as our room of 125 watched in anticipation. Then another. A slow smile formed on his face, and he said, “I like it.” To him, it had a “rounder” and less bitter taste. But that was only a sample size of one, so being a scientifically inclined audience, we knew it was important that several others give it a shot. The first person had a similar reaction, liking it better than the original, and adding that the sprinkle made the beer “fuller” and seemed to bring out the flavor of hops . The gentleman who raised the question originally just plain liked it. (And came back for more when the session ended.)

I’m not a big beer drinker, and I don’t know that I’ll be sprinkling MSG in my glass next time I get the urge on one of these hot summer days. But it was interesting to put the experiment in the context of the lecture we’d just heard at FAND. Glutamate has the ability to trigger different types of taste buds than the basic taste we normally expect and characterize. And that triggering often gives unique and interesting profiles to the foods we eat (and based on this, at least some beverages!). Wonder what it would do for a margarita?

Lisa is a scientist by training, with a Master of Science degree in human nutrition and an undergraduate degree in microbiology, both from Clemson University. But she’s spent most of her career in roles that involve the translation of science for public and professional audiences. She served as executive director of The Glutamate Association (TGA) from 2010 for over seven years and is currently TGA’s Senior Science Advisor. Lisa is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and an associate member of the American Society for Nutrition.

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