November 15, 2021
By Jack Hennessy
Deer Beer. Hunter's Hop Juice. Buck Brewski. Perhaps you can think of a better name for a beer that was designed from the ground up to pair with venison, but with more than 30 years of professional brewing experience, Rick Goehring of Walnut River Brewing Company knew exactly where to start in terms of taste.
For this project, both Goehring and his business partner, B.J. Hunt, were kind enough to indulge my vision: A beer that would pair perfectly with venison, but also could be used to cook with.
Both the homebrew recipe and a wild-game recipe, using said homebrew, are included in this article. For details on the journey, keep reading.
WHAT IS UMAMI?
Up until 2002, scientists recognized four basic taste regions on the human tongue: sweet, bitter, salty and sour. For centuries, unique beer styles have been built around these four flavors, helping to define different regions and cultures. Examples include:
- Sweet: Russian Imperial Stout, English Barleywine
- Bitter: India Pale Ale
- Salty: German Gose
- Sour: Berliner Weisse, Belgian Lambic
In 1908, a Japanese scientist discovered a distinct savory flavor now known as "umami." It wasn’t until 2002 that umami taste receptors were found on the human tongue, making it the fifth official taste. Only a handful of beers have ever been made to specifically accentuate the umami flavor. At the time of writing, only three umami beers exist in the world, one of those being the beer concocted for this story, which is currently on tap at the PourHouse in Wichita, Kan.
"Brewing a beer to pair with venison seemed to be an incredibly delicious and unique approach to this project," said Goehring. "The melding of art and science is at the heart of craft-beer brewing, so how could Walnut River pass up an opportunity like this?"
The grains used for this beer were grown north of Emporia, Kan.
"Since we were trying to pair with venison, we were thinking something more savory, something like umami," said Goehring. "And to really maximize that, I picked other ingredients that really amp up umami, so we have mushrooms."
In this recipe, Goehring sourced maitake mushrooms (also known as hen of the woods) grown in Kansas that might well have been a food source for local whitetails. The mushrooms were dehydrated and ground into powder.
"In my research, two other big ingredients are kelp and green tea," said Goehring. "I got the highest quality stuff, directly from Japan. For all these ingredients, you extract the maximized umami flavors in different ways. For example, with the kelp you steep in cold water, then you heat it up and pull it out once the water is hot."
I spent an afternoon in late September helping Goehring and Hunt take this idea from start to finish, using their kettle setup at the PourHouse in Wichita. At the main Walnut River brewery in El Dorado, Kan., Goehring uses only a carbon filter to process water, as the water is from the Walnut River, which runs alongside unfarmed pastures and therefore is not susceptible to chemical runoff. In using only a carbon filter, Goehring retains all the minerals from the local waters—minerals that are partly responsible for growing big deer in the surrounding area.
However, at the PourHouse, Goehring employs reverse osmosis then adds minerals back into the water to align with the profile of the water found in El Dorado. All this is to say that the water used for this beer contains the same minerals responsible for growing wide, heavy racks on Kansas bucks.
I was initially told the finished product would taste like a cross between pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) and beer. It didn’t taste like that to me. There were notes of sweetness from residual sugars, but the savory profile came in at the end.
My tastebuds basically went on a rapid transit from understanding "Yes, this is a beer, slightly sweet," to, "Oh, this something else, too." Perhaps this is due to the locations of the taste receptors on our tongues: sweet at the tip, umami in the center.
I would also speculate that the temperature of the beer had something to do with the flavor I experienced. While my initial serving was very cold, I took home a growler of it and let it sit outside the fridge. With the beer at nearly room temperature, I was able to pick up on more of its savory aspects.
Is this beer worth the effort for a homebrewer? Absolutely. Is it worth a plane ticket to Wichita to sit in the PourHouse and tilt one back? Well, sure, but especially yes if you’re going to also pick up a non-resident tag and pursue a Kansas bruiser during the rut.
COOKING WITH UMAMI
Below is a recipe for reversed-seared venison tenderloins and a gravy made with the umami beer. Yes, you can use other cuts of venison. Yes, you can use other beers, such as a dark ale.
Ingredients (2 servings):
- Two inner loins
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- One medium yellow onion, thinly sliced into rings
- Olive oil
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 tablespoon salted butter
- 1/4 cup beef stock
- 1 cup umami beer (or dark ale)
- Freshly minced parsley for garnish (optional)
- Completely thaw inner loin and lightly oil, then liberally dust all sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Refrigerate for two hours.
- To make gravy, in a large (preferably cast-iron) skillet, heat a thin layer of olive oil over medium heat. Add thinly sliced onions and lightly salt and pepper. Once seared, lower heat to medium-low and continue to caramelize onions.
- Once onions are caramelized, after 30 to 40 minutes, remove from skillet and add 1 tablespoon salted butter and 1 tablespoon flour. Stir often to create a roux. In a separate small saucepan, heat 1/4 cup of beef stock on medium-low.
- Once the roux is the color of wet sand, add heated beef stock (stand back to avoid getting splashed with hot liquids) and stir in thoroughly. Once thick, add 1 cup umami beer and heat on low, stirring often until lumps are gone. When ready to serve, add caramelized onions back to the gravy to heat up briefly prior to serving.
- To cook the tenderloins, preheat oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
- On a stainless-steel mesh rack or similar (not a baking tray, because you want ample air flow to all sides of loins), roast tenderloins from 20 to 40 minutes until internal temp reaches 100. Use an internal meat probe that is oven safe.
- Prior to removing inner loin from oven, pre-heat a cast-iron skillet until it’s piping hot (approximately 600 degrees).
- Once the tenderloins are cooked to an internal temp of 100, sear all sides EVENLY in piping-hot skillet (no more than 1 minute and 30 second per side).
- Once a nice crust has formed on all sides, remove and allow tenderloins to rest 10 minutes prior to carving and serving. Top with gravy and garnish with freshly minced parsley if desired.
Enjoy! Reach out to me on Instagram (@WildGameJack) with any questions or comments.