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.