Sake beats other drinks for umami flavor

"If one takes a drink with glutamate and a food with just as many ribonucleotides, the umami flavor can generally be multiplied by eight," explains Charlotte Vinther Schmidt. (Credit: Zaji Kanamajina/Unsplash)

Which fermented drink has the most umami flavor: champagne, beer, wine, or sake? New research points to the Japanese rice wine.

Umami, the fifth basic flavor, has crept into our understanding of food in recent years. In Japanese, umami translates roughly to “savory deliciousness.” It is often associated with the earthy flavors of meat, mushrooms, broth, and vine-ripened tomatoes. It enhances saltiness and sweetness, while reducing bitterness, which is why most people love it.

“We investigated the average umami flavor content in a range of wines, champagnes, beers, and sakes. Our analyses demonstrate that it is in sake (Japanese rice wine), where umami reigns supreme on the umami scale, far ahead of beer, followed by champagne and finally wine,” says Charlotte Vinther Schmidt, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen.

“However, we studied slightly fewer beers than the other beverages, so that class of beverage may have been difficult to score precisely.”

Determining the umami flavor content of a drink involves finding out how much of an amino acid known as glutamic acid there is in it. Umami flavor reaches us by way of glutamate as it lands on the specialized “umami” taste receptors of our tongues.

“Our results suggest that the longer a beverage’s fermentation time, the higher its glutamate content—which leads to more umami flavor. This is probably why sake leads the pack by so much in terms of umami, as it is typically fermented using both yeast and a mold culture called koji,” explains Vinther Schmidt.

Pairings for maximum umami

Pairings can bring out more umami, say the researchers.

“We already know about food combinations which pair happily—like ham and cheese, for example. Therefore, we calculated the effects of pairing shellfish like oysters, shrimp, and scallops with the various beverages, so as to investigate which combinations would synergize and provoke an emergence of umami,” explains Vinther Schmidt.

“Here, we conclude that each of the beverage classes studied elicit an umami flavor when paired with oysters and tuna. Furthermore, sake, certain aged wines, and champagne can also exhibit umami flavor when paired with scallops.”

According to the researchers, this is because pairing high-content glutamate drinks with foods high in ribonucleotides (RNA’s building blocks), catalyzes a synergistic flavor magic through which the best qualities of both drink and food emerge.

“If one takes a drink with glutamate and a food with just as many ribonucleotides, the umami flavor can generally be multiplied by eight,” explains Vinther Schmidt.

Could this make us eat our veggies?

Knowing how to enhance umami is useful when it comes to a more sustainable diet, as Vinther Schmidt explains:

“If we can understand which vegetables, that together with selected beverages, provide the best taste—that umami contributes to—we could probably get far more people to consume vegetables, which is healthy for us humans, as well as for our planet.”

So, there is good reason to consider the rapport between a meal’s food and drink, as Vinther Schmidt concludes:

“Although there are other factors contribute to taste experiences, like mouthfeel and smell, it might be a good idea to buy beverages with a high concentration of umami, as they improve the chance of enhancing taste in high-ribonucleotide foods, thus resulting in the delightful savory-deliciousness of umami.”

The findings appear in the journal Food Chemistry.

Source: University of Copenhagen