Illustration by Monica Simon
In the early days of Eleven Madison Park, Augie Carton would regularly sit at the bar and order the five-spice duck, a signature dish from Chef Daniel Humm. Adorned with cumin, coriander, lavender, red Sichuan peppercorn and honey, it would be served with seasonal fruit: strawberries in summer, apples in the fall, fig and plums in the winter. And that is where beer inspiration struck for Carton, who had recently opened a brewery in New Jersey.
The wheels began to turn: Belgian Candi sugar and Special B malts can evoke flavors of stone fruits. What if those were used in a strong winter warmer ale, akin to a Belgian quadruple? With the chef’s spices—could the beer evoke the flavors of the dish and accompanying fruit? He did just that.
“It comes from the idea of gastronomic deconstruction,” says Carton. “We were deconstructing what was going on in terms of taste and aromatics and trying to fill that in.” The beer, an homage (or a decoy), has been released several times now in the colder months and is known as This Is Definitely Not a Fake Duck.
It’s becoming increasingly popular for breweries to take food items—really anything you can think of, from chocolate cake to Swedish fish or even whole chicken parmesan sandwiches—and add them directly to the grain bill of the beer or during fermentation to let those flavors infuse into the brewing beer.
It is a polarizing process to be sure. There are purists who deride any gimmicks in their pints, then there are those who are tickled by the whimsy and delighted by the results.
“Beers brewed with the addition of unusual ingredients can be surprisingly delightful. When tasting these beers, I expect to be able to perceive the featured ingredients, and I expect them to be in harmony with the malt,-hop- and fermentation-derived notes in the beer,” says Mirella Amato, a craft beer and sensory consultant who is also a Master Cicerone and Doemens Biersommelier. “Beer is well-balanced and moreish by design. Adding fun ingredients should not take away from these qualities.”
There are a handful of brewers such as Carton (who is also the co-host of the Steal This Beer podcast with this writer) taking individual ingredients and using them in inventive ways throughout the whole brewing process to evoke sensory memories of food. From spices and sugars to herbs and grain, it is possible to taste food in your beer without there being actual food in your beer.
There are also the four main ingredients of beer to consider and the individual flavors they provide. Water can be hard or soft, have mineral content, be salty or even a bit sulphury, at times.
Malts bring a host of flavors that can evoke cereal grain or country bread or caramel. Darker kilned malts can taste like coffee or chocolate or toffee. There are smoked malts that add a lovely bacon flavor to lagers and porters. Grains like rye add spiciness. The familiar flavors of wheat, corn and rice add those flavors when added to a beer’s grain bill.