Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Beer Part 1

One of the world’s oldest foods has stood the test of time.  From accidental beginnings (presumably), perhaps a mistake from leaving bread uncovered in a rain storm a few thousand years ago, to a widely consumed incredibly diverse beverage enjoyed today.
The ingredients are simple, a source of carbohydrate/sugar, water, hops, and yeast.  But each of the ingredients can be modified prior to production thereby having multiple influences on flavour. 
Carbohydrate is usually malted barley (can be wheat, sorghum, but other grains may not have appropriate enzymes to help carbohydrate and protein breakdown sugars and amino acids which yeast use during fermentation), which is roasted to various levels of colour, and adding one or more varieties of colours of malts is the basis behind a light golden beer such as American style lagers versus black beers like Guinness.  As you go from light to darker colours, flavours change, with straw-like grainy flavours, converting to caramel/malt, going to caramel/burnt flavours.  
Water is water, but throughout history the good brewing regions are associated with good sources of water. Burton-on-Trent brewing region was founded on medicinal spring water we now know as ‘hard water’ (alkaline and mineralised), that has been shown to produce higher quality darker style of ales traditionally produced there.  Water is added to the malted barley to make a sugary solution, pretty much the base for the beer, but at this stage it does not taste like beer.
The next ingredient is hops which are used for bitterness and aroma, and there are many varieties of hops.  The brewer decides what level of bitterness is required, what level of hop aroma and adds the appropriate hops at the appropriate time of wort boiling.  For bitterness, the hops must be added early in the boil to help conversion to the bitter form, while aroma hops must be added late to ensure the volatile aromas do not evaporate during the boiling. The flavour at this stage would still not resemble beer, but would have distinct bitterness, and depending on the type of aroma hops may be aromatic, fruity and floral.
The last ingredient, yeast is also vitally important.  The yeast is added to the liquid wort, a mix of sugars, amino acids, hop compounds and given the right temperature yeast will happily grow, and in doing so turn the sugars into alcohol and other compounds that add to the flavour of the beer.  The type of yeast is important, lager yeast work well at low temperatures and produce less fruity flavours, but more sulphur flavours. Ale yeasts ferment at higher temperatures and produce a more fruity/floral and alcoholic type aromas.  If you taste the product at the end of fermentation it will taste like beer, but the final product still requires maturation to settle the yeast and mellow some of the flavours.
I find it remarkable that four primary ingredients cover such a wide spectrum of flavours.  But if four ingredients isn’t enough there are others that are added to beers, for example wheat beers with added fruit (raspberry), or around Halloween Pumpkin Ales are available.  The limit to what ingredients can be added to beer is equivalent to the limits of imagination of the brewer. 
There is certainly science and a good deal of art in brewing, but the successful brewer must understand the consumer, whether that is the mass-market consumer who consistently purchases Budweiser, or the beer enthusiast who loves discovering a rare oak aged Porter.  If the final product meets expectations of the consumer, then the ingredients and brewer have accomplished their mission.  
The title to a country song sung by Tom T Hall is appropriate to finish this blog 'I like beer'. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Salt Taste Part 4

The food industry loves salt, it is a magic ingredient with the ability to change an unpalatable food to one that is flavoursome and appealing. As Heston Blumenthal stated, it is the most important ingredient in the kitchen. Let’s take bread as a food that uses the multiple functions of salt.  Bread produced without salt has a vastly different taste to bread produced with salt – not only taste, but the texture is different, and 99.99% of consumers prefer their bread produced with salt.  It may seem hard to believe, but bread is the single largest source of salt in our diet; yet bread is not salty like potato chips are salty.  That is because the majority of salt is bound within the matrix and unavailable to activate our taste receptors.  It is within the bread matrix that salt has some functions, salt controls growth of yeast and promotes the development of gluten structure/texture in bread, as well as adding or enhancing flavour.  As a cook, baker or food manufacturer you would be crazy not to use salt.  The reason for salts continued (increased in the case of Australia, if you trust the recent data from Australian division World Action on Salt and Health (AWASH)) use in processed foods, given the multiple health reasons not too, is the multiple positive functions salt has in the food matrix. 
            Take meat and cheese products as examples, both are high in salt and if a manufacturer was making a reformulated meat product (chicken patties or similar), reducing the salt would adversely affect texture and require other additives to replace the water-holding, protein-binding, and fat-binding functions of the salt. In cheese, additional additives would be needed to help promote good bacteria and inhibit bad bacteria during fermentation and aging.   But what compounds can replace the function of salt, and what's the cost; consumers may not be able to afford or willing to pay for a significant increase in the cost of salt reduced foods.  In addition, we must not forget the role salt plays in preservation, as it reduces water activity in foods and acts to control growth of pathogens and spoilage organism.  If salt levels are decreased, it will be necessary to use other preservatives to ensure safe foods with a reasonable shelf life.
From a food industry perspective, in addition to processing and safety challenges involved in producing low sodium foods, there is also an economic consideration. If it becomes apparent to a food manufacturer that consumers prefer a higher concentration of salt over the current concentration, salt may be added to that food at very little cost.  For example, the approximate price of salt is 34 cents/ kg, if food manufacturers wish to increase the salt concentration of bread by 5% the approximate cost would only be 0.000756 cents/100 g. Salt is very cheap and any substitute used will increase the cost of the product. Production of foods with reduced salt will require reformulation and additional associated costs of consumer testing and pilot plant tests.  Are we as consumers willing to pay the extra costs associated with reduced salt products, or are we willing to accept inferior products? Possibly not.  Are we willing to accept myriad new additives that will be needed to replace the functions of salt? Again, possibly not. While the flavour aspects of salt are undoubtedly the main reason why salt is in foods at the level it is, there are also technical reasons to maintain salt levels in foods
It is widely accepted we have a food supply that delivers to much salt for population health.  How to fix the problem is the issue.  The most effective strategy is to reduce the level of salt in manufactured foods, as they deliver 75% of dietary salt.  The food industry correctly states salt reduction is not easy to do, and there are costs involved. And we as consumers are likely unwilling to accept increased costs that will be involved with salt reduction.
One thing for certain, the last thing we need is food manufacturers increasing the current levels of salt in foods, as AWASH reported recently.  There is no need for more salt in bread, or increased levels in cereals. If voluntary food industry targets cannot be determined or met for specific foods, the next step should be to legislate maximum levels of salt in foods.  Perhaps this is needed, if so, start with bread at a maximum level of 800mg NaCl/100g bread – this is a good compromise value, the functionality the bread matrix is maintained, taste is fine and will be a significant step forward in reducing population salt intake.
As (hopefully) explained over the past 4 blogs, salt is a problem with no easy answer.