Flavour Terms, Then And Now

pumpernickel-topSometimes an old taste note jumps out at you, in the sense you can see the same thing in the same kind of drink today. A while ago I wrote about this in the context of rye whiskey.

On the other hand, trades and arts in earlier days often had their own lingo. Sometimes it reflected a certain technology used then. Sometimes it was more how the English language was used in general (longer words, more ornate especially in the English context).

Recently, I was puzzled, in reading about pasteurization of beer c. 1900, by a recurring term, “bready”. Its boon companion, “the steam taste”,  is easier because “steaming” was a trade cant for pasteurizing. (It is remarkable how only 10-15 years after Pasteur’s groundbreaking work on beer stability, his name became a synonym for beer sterilization). The steam term came from the hot water baths in which bottles were immersed.

But why bready? Today, those who feel they can detect the pasteurized taste often say “cooked” or “burned sugar”. In the past beer was often termed liquid bread anyway, so what does “bready” add in a pasteurization context?

I’ll give my answer to this in a moment, but first some remarks on pasteurization. While it has enormous advantages, I am not for it as a general rule, as apart from the cooked taste mentioned (which is not always apparent or in all brands), the process tends in my view to remove the “live” taste of beer. The difference may be subtle but it’s there and most brewers I’ve discussed this with agree there is a difference. Most say though the average drinker can’t detect it and the trade-offs argue in favour of the practice.

I’m not so sure as I believe someone may select another brand because of that something “indefinable” which is different. Just because most cannot articulate the difference doesn’t mean they don’t react to it.

There is a fine science to pasteurization today, both tunnel and the much quicker flash system. They impart a stability whose extent is determined by the maximum temperature and then hold and cooling times. Scientists know the number of yeast cells and other microbiological content in the beer after such treatments, it’s all a carefully calibrated process.

Anchor Brewing in San Francisco has always pasteurized, even the draft. Abita and New Belgium use pasteurization for some beers, I’ve read, Sam Adams too (all the bottled in its case). Many craft brewers – most, I believe – don’t use it, relying on filtration (which takes many forms) or bottle-conditioning for stability. Of course the market and other factors will dictate the best solution for each brewer.

Sierra Nevada uses a cellulose filter, and centrifuging, to clear primary yeast from its famed pale ale, then adds a new dose to the bottle to ensure a slight conditioning. Cellulose filters were common in America in 1900, it’s very traditional but other systems especially in mass-market brewing are perhaps more common today including  diatomaceous earth filters. Membrane systems, for their part, are particuarly adapted to cold-filtering. Coors Light uses the latter I understand – no pasteurization at least in the U.S., I’m not sure about Canada.

I prefer bottle- and can-conditioning of all the systems, it produces the most natural-tasting drink IMO and has good longevity, as much as pasteurized beer if not more. The current fad for “unfiltered” beer (cloudy-looking) often means the beers are bottle-conditioned. Technically some are not as there isn’t enough residual yeast to assist a secondary fermentation, but either way the beers are still “live”.

The filtered-but-unpasteurized way – so the beer looking bright – was the main method used by craft brewers in North America in the first decades, it works fine but the beers, at least of average ABV, can’t be kept that long, even refrigerated.

As light blonde lager became the main American style as WW I approached, pasteurization was routinely used by brewers even those with a local market. It became “the thing”. At the time, given the sanitation in breweries including widespread use of wood in production, and lack of home and distribution chain refrigeration, not to mention where bottled beer was long-shipped in different climates to areas without breweries, it made sense to pasteurize, but the logic today is less persuasive.

Based on my own taste tests, I believe the flash system, where the beer is heated for only a minute vs. 40 minutes or so for the tunnel system, is a superior way to stabilize beer if pasteurization is to be used.

I think bready, a term used both in Europe and here up to 1914, was meant in reference to a dark bread with sweet notes. German brewers would have been familiar with dark, rye-based breads. True enough, bread types differ regionally in Germany, but in general I think they were thinking of a sweetish baked taste which dark rye breads can certainly have.

This 2013 study in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing confirmed that pasteurized beer has a certain quantity of “Maillard” compounds, it’s the same caramelized taste as occurs in baked pumperknickel and many cooked foods from the sugars being heated:

Fresh pasteurized beer contained some Maillard-related volatile compounds and the fresh unpasteurized beer contained slightly more alcohols and volatile ester compounds…

Note too the reference to higher ester content in the unpasteurized beer: it’s something I’ve noticed myself over many years. The study is an interesting read even if the science is daunting: e.g. the beers were kept for about 41 days at 40 C – that’s hot! Most craft beer in Western  Europe and here would never be treated like that, but it shows the extreme conditions larger brewers at any rate feel their beers must survive to be reliable in the market.

And so, most mysterious terms can be parsed by thinking out the larger picture. Why was light Bohemian-style pilsner called wine-like here and in Germany in the late 1800s? These beers had lower extract than dark Munich beer, so their acidity levels, which were rather higher than today’s, were less masked. And the light colour, and greenish hue imparted by hops, would have reminded the brewers of Rhenish wines. (“Wine” as used in a German-American context meant white, period).

Some terms just require a dictionary: empyreumatic, for porter, meant a burned vegetal taste, or smoky. This was due to wood-kilned browned malt being used for porter or stout into the late 1800s. A twang? Hoppy. Mucilagenous? Sweet and sticky. “Sickly”? That one’s harder, I think it meant a degraded yeast taste, primarily.

Onion- and garlic-like? Easier, it’s dimethyl sulphide and possibly hydrogen sulphide, a taste young blonde lager can (still, very much) have due to precursors in pilsener malts.

Many words have changed but beer, much less so.

Note re image: The image above is from the website of Kasseler Breads, the Toronto-area baker which makes fine German breads. All trade marks and other intellectual property thereto or therein belongs to their owner and licensed users. Image believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All feedback welcomed.