‘Dank’ as a flavor descriptor

The flavor “dank” doesn’t appear on the ASBC flavor wheel, nor does it in the more modern and scientifically informed Flavor Map. It’s more an informal commercial descriptor, often used in beer reviews or at point-of-sale to describe a beer that reminds one of marijuana. Getting to a consensus of what “dank” is is probably very complicated since it arose organically. Instead of approaching this more-or-less scientifically, I want to share a few thoughts that I’ve worked out that, I hope, at least partially explain this term.

In sensory panels, I’ve heard it often argued that ‘dank’ is not reducible to other aromas, and people insist that it’s a unique quality. The intensity of the flavor quality of ‘dank’ seems tied to the colloquial use of the word “dank” in contexts outside of beer: to describe intensity as well as quality. One never hears of “mildly dank” beer. It’s a term that is used to pointedly communicate punchy-ness. “Dank.” I’ve also noticed that it’s used often to capture that big West Coast IPA flavor, especially when distinguishing such beers from less bitter and more tropical fruit-forward and IPAs (e.g. so-called New England IPAs).

I disagree that ‘dank’ is unique. To me, ‘dank’ is best described as a compound flavor coming from a relatively high level of bitterness with a definite and often lingering astringency accompanied by resinous [and perhaps citrus] aromas associated with marijuana. I see no good reason to distinguish the aroma component of “dank” from that of already-available beer flavor descriptors.  Myrcene, and pinene seem to me to be the obvious candidates for such a an aroma connection between dried marijuana buds and dried hop catkins, as they are present in many varieties of both pot and hop and neatly explain the pine association. There also seems to me to be some connection in presence of the linalool and limonene, as some grapefruity or Fruit Loops aroma have also been reported with some dank weed varieties. These compounds are present in marijuana and also hops. Who knows if the specific quality of “dank” is sensitive to the absolute and relative amounts of specific terpenoids and other aroma compounds (a certain balance?). Is there a sulfur component to “dank?” I could see some fried garlic or onion complementing the pungency that the word is trying to convey. Is it just equivalent to describing “piney with a little grapefruit?”

The most fascinating aspect of all this is that there seems to be Flavor components beyond aroma involved. To the best of my knowledge, no one eats marijuana, so it’s interesting that a term for the marijuana aroma has moved into beer flavor description to capture a sensation that seems so heavily tied to taste and mouthfeel as well as aroma. Perhaps the highly-correlated quality of “sticky” helps explain this cross-sensory application. Beer described as “dank” is often described as “sticky,” seemingly for emphasis (“sticky, dank hop character”). Here, a tactile quality of the essentials oils of [good-quality?] marijuana, “sticky,” is being used in association with the lingering astringency and bitternes of highly-hopped beers of a certain quality. Discussions tend to center around “pine sap” or resin. “Stickiness” in the mouth is associated with tactile stickiness of the flower of of sap. These sensations and how people are communicating their perception of these flavors convince me more that “dank” is much more than set of aroma associations.

And what about the perception and the designation of quality? Usually “dank” connotes high quality or purity at least among certain counter-cultural groups. Is that what we’re trying to get across at point-of-sale when we talk about IPAs?

Whether merely arising from shared aroma oil fractions between hops and marijuana, or some cross-sensory tactile weirdness, I’m really interested in getting to the bottom on this whole dank IPA thing. Please let me know what “dank” means to you! We can figure this out.

Reflections on becoming a thoughtful taster: attitude

When folks find out that my vocation is beer quality and that I lead a sensory analysis program, they sometimes ask questions along the lines of “how do you become a good taster?” and “do you have some special knack for tasting and describing beer?,” usually with a hint of “oh I could never be able to do something like that.” My response is usually along the lines of explaining that learning to perceive and communicate sensory experiences is something that is almost entirely a learned skill. In most cases, there is no gene or intrinsic ability that highly qualified sensory analysts have. The “God tongue” is a myth. People are surprised to learn that the biggest thing that separates them from those Master Sommeliers is [mostly] time and attention coupled with high-quality focused training. For wine tasting especially, the tried-and-true method of deductive tasting is a highly trainable skill.

Despite the mostly-acquired nature of beer tasting and description, I’ve been reflecting lately on qualities that make someone attitudinally disposed to training their palate. In myself, I count pure intellectual interest, sensitivity, curiosity, a love of aesthetics, and openness to experience among qualities that lead me to spend time at training my sensory apparatus and learning how to describe flavor. These aspects of my personality also happen to be the things I like most about me, and have all had a big influence on the way I live my life more broadly.

Here I’d like to discuss the concrete ways my “openness to experience” in particular has led me to follow a lifetime quest to become a better sensory analyst. By openness to experience, I mean the positive orientation I have toward the novel and unfamiliar. When presented with opportunities to try something new, I’m usually down. I enjoy soaking up new experiences and being able to integrate those experiences into my life and worldview, even if I expect there to be an unpleasant aspect to the experience or if I’m a bit afraid of it. This happened recently when I was invited to be taken up 40(?!) feet in the fermentation cellar on a shaky scissor lift to dump dry hops into a fermentor with a cellar technician, the thought of which scared the shit out of me. It was a blast even though my heart nearly stopped every time the carriage swayed.

One practice I’ve picked up is smelling everything, and smelling things with mindfulness. Pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, novel, common, I can’t afford not to miss out on an opportunity to experience a new aroma. Double goes for not wanting to miss out on aromas I haven’t experienced in years but which are nevertheless associated with deep emotional connections or autobiographical memories which come flooding back with just a whiff.

I have been caught [at separate times] smelling the garbage bag before I tie it up, licking hemp rope, and bending over trying to sniff a brass doorknob. In my view, there is just no reason not to do these things, and the potential benefits for building a sensory vocabulary and making richer sense-associations are obvious.

We all have food preferences, and I definitely like certain beer styles better than others, but trying new things is important enough to warrant a tendency of not ordering the same beer more than once, or trying out fresh Blue Point oysters even though I’m a vegetarian and the thought of visceral but animate muscle tissue freaks me out. Now that I’m in Chicago, I’m looking forward to trying out that notorious local liqour, Malört, despite a reputable account describing it as tasting like “a mix of corked Bordeaux, Saler’s apéritif on crack, dead dog, and the Gowanus canal during summer.”

Having a positive attitude toward new things is hugely beneficial  toward training up your sensory skill, but its also an excellent way to enrich your inner life, so I’ll conclude with a call to openness. Next time you take your sock off after a long day in your brewery boots, have a good sniff (just maybe from a few feet away). Take some time to run your hand through strange and unfamiliar fabrics when you come across them in the world. Seek out the smell of a loamy field’s dirt on your next summer picnic. Get the weird savory ice cream next time. It’s all good. Just dig it.

 

 

Intersection of Flavor, Taste and Mouthfeel with the Dreaded Coconut LaCroix: Mighty Mighty Lactones

I absolutely adore coconut-flavored LaCroix. Aside from being able to drink a calorie-free beverage that won’t make be unmotivated or tipsy in the afternoon, I love that it recalls me of a summery day in the shade of palm trees and gulls, crystal blue water rocking a floating dock nearby.

I hadn’t realized a key reason why I enjoy the coconut LaCroix until recently, when I moved to Chicago and was exposed to dozens of new opinions about seltzer water, which is apparently pretty popular in my set. A major reason cited for why people I’ve met don’t enjoy seltzer water is lack of mouthfeel and lack of an expected sweetness. All our soda(/pop) beverages have conditioned us to expect a certain fullness of mouthfeel and an accompanying sweetness, and drinkers can be jarred when the seltzer doesn’t deliver that sweetness. I bet that this effect could well be enhanced by the derceased sweet perception in carbonated beverages from carbonation’s effect on the processing of the sweet stimulus.

Coconut LaCroix is special, and I’d like to suggest, intentionally or unintentionally designed to counter many of the flaws inherent in unsweetened seltzer. Many of the major flavor compounds that cue “coconut” are the gamma-lactones. These compounds are also important constituents of peach, apricot, and creamy flavor. In coffee, a separate class of lactones account for the balanced, soft bitterness that comes from careful roasting, proper brewing, and prompt serving. Of interest in beer making are lactones’ contribution to so-called coumarinic flavors in beer left in-contact with medium- or light-toast that has only been mildly seasoned: those striking coconut flavors!

Gamma-lactones have varied aromas, depending on the length of their side-chains, but most have sweet-aromatic and creamy associations, like of coconut-cream and tropical fruits (I have a pet theory that this flavor resonance accounts for the deliciousness of coconut-cream pie and peaches and cream). They also impart a creamy mouthfeel to beverages.

These attributes, I think, are important on countering some of the unfavorable hedonic attributes of the unsweetened coconut-flavored seltzer, helping give the impression of “sweet” with sweet-aromatics and lending a mild creaminess to the beverage.

So hold your nose and roll the beverage around in your mouth next time you pop open one of these Coconut LaCroix (if you don’t just reflexively hate it, as most people seem to)! Also look for the sweet-aromatic aspect of the woody-coconut flavor. I get a pretty clear “creamy” mouthfeel despite the thinness of the beverage. Lemme know you you think!