“Go Big or Go Home” is a phrase that is usually associated with sports, however it has crept into the food and beverage world as well, albeit unintentionally. About two decades ago California wine makers began making high alcohol and muscular wines. The intention behind the combination of high alcohol and tannins was to give the wine enough muscle to mature in a cellar, mellow over time and hopefully be compared with the great wines of Europe. Tannins are the astringent substance found in seeds and stems of grapes and one of the essential elements in the aging process of wines.
One of the consequences in this shift in philosophy from wine makers was that the wine was very limited and very expensive. Restaurateurs quickly recognized the downside of this philosophy, having a tremendous amount of cash tied up in inventory. So, rather than the wine simply sit and mature in the wine cellar, out of necessity for cash flow restaurateurs put them on their wine list while they sat unnoticed in the cellar. Consumers on the other hand having read about the pedigree of the wine and the talent of the wine maker began to purchase them. Who would have thought? Surely not the traditional “Francophile”!
Fast forward to 2013, we now have artisan craft beers with high alcohol and super hopped! Hops, are a dried flower that imparts a bitter flavor to the beer and ale. (Bitter and astringency are both perceived the same on our palates) Having tried many varieties of these over hopped beers, I just kept saying to myself…..gosh I just don’t like this overly bitter taste and feel in my mouth. The experience of drinking these types of brews was just so unpleasant I had to understand why. (At least from an intellectual standpoint) And let me be clear here I’m not suggesting these are not quality beers, what I’m saying is my palate prefers less bitterness.
After doing the research it turns out that hops are just like tannins to wine, and come across as bitter in your mouth. We all know the four taste buds, sweet, salt, sour and bitterness, and when food and beverages are consumed our brain identifies and associates either pleasure or disdain based on what these taste buds tell us. Now enter the “Umami” effect, Japanese researchers have discovered that there essentially is a fifth taste bud, which effectively tells the brain that all the traditional taste buds are in harmony with each other, and we experience pleasure. Certain foods naturally demonstrate this umami effect when eaten: an example would be bacon.
The realization of hops and tannins reacting as they do was a small revelation for me, and it is no wonder why I have this aversion to overly hopped beer, I never liked the high alcohol tannic wines as well, simply because it felt like I was chewing on nails and the tannins overpowered my palate and my brain just screamed pain not pleasure! Again, let me be clear, this is not any criticism to the quality of the products it’s simply my palate telling my brain that something is not “umami” in my mouth! And knowing this has allowed me intellectually enjoy many of the new emerging beverages of this generation, but my brain keeps it real.
The moral of this blog however, is to listen to your mouth, be your own critic and drink what feels good! Life is too short.
NOTE: Kevin O’Donnell is the author of this blog. He is a seasoned hotelier, wine and beer afficiando, and educator. Kevin is currently the Vice President of Restaurant Operations for the New England Culinary Institute and lives in Montpelier, Vermont.