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Sneezing about hops & tasting beer umami

Hops vining in the Oregon fields
Hops vining in the Oregon fields
Charlie Papazian

It almost never fails. I can identify a particular variety of hops in beer, simply by sneezing. Hand me a glass of IPA or pale ale and if I convulse with a couple of quick and quirky sneezes at a brewery, you’ll hear me ask, “Chinook hops?” And by my reckoning over the last 5 years the answer is usually, “Why yes, how did you know?” Don’t ask me why. It’s a mystery to me too. There must be a specific compound unique to Chinook hops when in beer, that causes me to sneeze once or twice. Then I’m over it and on to the beer. This is indeed strange but true. And I have to admit I’m flabbergasted that I’m sensitive to something that Chinook hops contribute to beer.

There’s a lot we don’t know about hops. Here’s something else I’ve recently noticed.

In 1979 the American Chemical Society published an article “Protein Quality Evaluation of Spent Hops.” This wasn’t an article which brewers or beer enthusiasts (there weren’t many in 1979) would have noticed. This was a study of interest to animal feed providers.

Hop protein is something not typically of interest to brewers and beer enthusiasts. The study reported that spent brewers hops contained 20-22% protein.

In the study, the protein content was broken down by “aa.” That’s not “alpha acid” but rather “amino acids.” Of the 21 different amino acids assessed the one that caught my eye was Glutamic Acid. It was 15% of all the protein in the spent hops. The study doesn’t mention what types of hops, but given that the data was derived in Poland in 1976 there is a good reason to believe it wasn’t too far removed from traditional noble hop varieties.

The presence of Glutamates is a genetic trait. This study was done in 1979, before the advent of all popular new varieties.

Why am I so excited about glutamates/glutamic acid in hops? Because it is the principal amino acid that stimulates the umami sensation; a taste sensation that can make food or drink taste more “delicious” and appealing.

What is umami? “Food & Beer is not the Marriage – it is about the Child,” Umami is not a single flavor; rather it is a range of flavors often insufficiently described as brothy or savory with a particular mouthfeel. There are different kinds of proteins in food. The umami taste is the triggering and intensification of certain protein flavors that result in the umami character. Chemically, the principal umami characters originate from glutamate: seaweed, certain vegetables such as tomatoes, parmesan cheese, anchovies, soy sauce; inosinate (meat and fish), and guanylate (certain mushrooms) nucleotides.

Combining different elements of umami create intensified flavor experiences. Combining acidic food and beverages with umami proteins also intensifies flavor experiences.

Beers that combine with certain foods can elevate umami – enhance food and beer combinations

When enjoying beer with meals, 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
  • Umami balances bitter and sour/acidity

Beers that don’t have umami can enhance the umami deliciousness of certain foods because of beer’s bitterness or acidity

Acidity can come from:

Roast character

Carbonic Acid

Fruit acids

Bacterial acidity

Bitterness can come from

Hop isomerized alpha acids

Other hop compounds

Other agricultural product compounds

Caffeine, cocoa, various herbs, spices

Can beer have umami character in and of itself?

We know that yeast is partially made up of many proteins, including glutamic acid. That is why you see “yeast extract” listed as an ingredient in Doritos® , Grape Nuts, candy bars, biscuits, cookies and many other tasty food products. So we should know that a certain balance of glutamic acid derived from brewers yeast in beer does enhance other flavors both in the beer and with other food.

Noble hops and umami

I suspect that there is another source of umami protein coming from hops. Not just any hop, but certain varieties. I’ve been told that the amount of glutamic acid in hops is a genetic trait. I suspect that many hybrid varieties have inadvertently had glutamic acid bred out of their presence and perhaps in some hybrids it has been intensified. I suspect that noble hop varieties have a significant amount of glutamic acid in their makeup. Why? Because I can taste it.

There is something about flavor enhancing qualities of Saaz, Spalt, Hallertau, Tettnang and Hersbruck that are eerily reminiscent of the umami sensation. Beers made using these hops grown in their native lands often have a unique self-made deliciousness and character that is unique from other beers using other or newer hop varieties. I suspect varieties other classic varieties such as U.K. Fuggles and U.K. Goldings have a relatively high content of glutamate. Newer varieties such as Simcoe, Columbus and maybe even Summit might have a significant amount of glutamic acid. I might even venture to suspect that the American Cluster hop, popular before the late 1970s also has enough glutamic acid to self-enhance the flavor beers made from these hops. American wild hops might also be more likely to have these characters.

Beer drinkers have always recognized the special character and popularity of beers with yeast, such as Hefe Weizens/Biers, Kellerbier, cask ale, bottle conditioned beer, authentic Belgian-style Witbier with yeast. Their characters have always enhanced food pairings and also have their own stand-alone, satisfying deliciousness.

Perhaps now there’s another source of deliciousness to learn more about. Hop-enhanced umami deliciousness.