Can Mushrooms Make a Less Bitter Beer?
In a nondescript strip mall in suburban Aurora, Colorado, a start-up company called MycoTechnology is brewing a potion to make foods taste less bitter. In one room, an opaque beige liquid churns inside glass flasks on a lab shaker. The liquid contains mycelia, threadlike fungi that form mushrooms in forests. MycoTechnology grows the organisms on Petri dishes, then in flasks, and eventually in large steel bioreactors, much like the tanks used for fermenting beer. After a few days, the contents are filtered, sterilized, and sprayed dry into a concentrated beige powder.
The resulting product, called ClearTaste, contains a series of molecules that temporarily stick to taste receptors on the tongue and block the perception of bitterness, says Pete Lubar, the company’s chief operating officer. Lubar says that ClearTaste seems to be effective when added in tiny quantities to a variety of foods, including alcohols, grains, fruit juices, ginseng, and the natural sweetener stevia. “People from all over the world now are sending us their nasty flavors, and we’re able to mitigate those flavors,” he says. It can be used to curb naturally bitter tastes and to drastically slash sugar in products where sweeteners are used to mask unpleasant aftertastes and off-notes. Crucially, because it’s made by mushrooms, it can be added to foods labeled natural and organic. It’s one of the reasons the company pulled in almost $10 million in funding last year.
Humans have a complex and fascinating relationship to bitter tastes. On one hand, blocking bitterness is a long-sought goal of the commercial food industry; from a marketing standpoint, bitterness is a turnoff. On the other hand, bitterness also adds complexity to our palate. Bitter tastes are something we learn to appreciate and are often considered a sign of sophistication (green vegetables, coffee, dark chocolate, alcoholic drinks, and other “grown-up” foods are bitter). So why do we try to erase them?
I came to MycoTechnology’s facility to taste for myself. I don’t mind a little bitterness; I eat kale salads and broccoli rabe, and my favorite cocktail is a Campari and soda. But there’s one bitter substance that I find tough to swallow: India pale ale. As much as my craft beer enthusiast friends encourage me, I can’t embrace the intensely hoppy beers that are so fashionable these days. I don’t reach for beers much, and when I do, I want something refreshing to quaff on a summer afternoon—something easy, not challenging.
So I sat down at a conference table while Josh Hahn, the company’s marketing manager, opened a bottle of locally brewed Breck IPA and poured a small amount into a paper cup. I sipped its foamy top and tasted a familiar twang that made my mouth tighten into a frown. Hahn then emptied a dropperful of a flavorless yellowish liquid containing ClearTaste dissolved in water into my beer and I sipped again. Surprisingly, the beer tasted smoother and milder. Hahn added another dose. The aftertaste was gone. It was like the volume has been turned down; I even detected a faint hint of sweetness in the beer. The product had reduced the fearsome IPA to something more like a mild lager. While IPA lovers might be horrified, I had to admit that this milder version was more my style.