Episode 169 – Breaking Bloody (Part III: Umami Tsunami)

Just because Lea & Perrins is the ubiquitous condiment that you’ll find in every major grocery store doesn’t mean it’s the only game in town when it comes to umami sauces. I jumped on a call with Kate Quartaro about the story and ingredients behind her Col. Pabst Worcestershire Sauce, which also has some really cool ties to American drinking culture.

According to Kate, her mother sourced the recipe for Colonel Pabst Worcestershire Sauce from the kitchen of her grandfather, Gustave Pabst. It was only made occasionally, since it was a complex recipe, but it demonstrates a family tradition of cooking with beer. Gustave’s father (Captain Frederick Pabst) was the founder of the Pabst brewery, which explains the family’s connection to fermented malt products.

As the oldest son, Gustave became president of Pabst Brewing Co. in Milwaukee upon the death of his father and maintained that position until Prohibition. He married into another brewing family from St. Louis, and the couple subsequently spent time in England, where it is assumed that they derived their recipe for Worcestershire sauce.

Worcestershire sauce was originally made with malt vinegar (as opposed to the current recipe ingredient, distilled white vinegar), and the Pabst family decided to substitute some of that malt vinegar for the pre-vinegar ferment: beer. According to Kate, this produces a fuller-bodied, richer flavor experience when compared to Worcestershire sauces that only contain malt vinegar. (And to be clear, during the manufacturing process, the alcohol in the beer is boiled out.)

Many people assume that, due to its connection to the Pabst brewing family, Colonel Pabst Worcestershire Sauce is made with PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) beer. That is actually not the case. It’s made with Lakefront Brewery’s Lager, which produces a beef-driven umami flavor when fermented with the other ingredients in the sauce. Some other ingredients in the mix include sustainable anchovies, crushed cinnamon sticks, whole peppercorns, mustard seed, and curry. This produces a rich sauce that is thicker thank most other Worcestershire sauces on the market.

Colonel Pabst Worcestershire Sauce Tasting

After hearing about the special malt- and spice-driven flavor profile of Col. Pabst Worcestershire sauce, you KNOW that Cera and I were ready to put it to the test. Here’s how it went.

  • Colonel Pabst Worcestershire Sauce – On the nose, it’s very different than Lea & Perrins. The complexity seems “baked in,” whereas the complexity in L&P seems “engineered.” It’s sweeter, darker, and more welcoming, with roasty flavors and welcoming vinegar encouraging a taste. On the palate, it is both meatier and milder than L&P. The mouthfeel is remarkable and buttery, making a point about texture without saying a word. Molasses, curry, and mustard notes back the texture and advance the conversation taking place on the palate. This is not a sauce that requires a palate cleanse, even with a straight tasting.

The Fermentation Situation

So, now that we’ve tasted through three different umami sauces, I wanted to return to what is probably the most interesting, misunderstood, and contentious ingredient in Worcestershire sauces around the world: anchovies. And not just any anchovies – the fermented kind.

Now, fermented fish sauces are part of many cultures around the world, but for some reason they’re not really well liked or well understood by the American palate. I mean, if Lea & Perrins were to market Worcestershire AS a fish sauce, I don’t think you’d see nearly as many people eager to snatch it off the shelves and add it to their next burger mix or sautee.

Of course, there are a number of reasons why you might not want stinky, fermented fish in your next meal or Bloody Mary, which is exactly why I found recipe developer and food expert Brinda Ayer’s article on Worcestershire sauce substitutes so fascinating. If you want to check that out (and you should), we’ll have a link to it right on the show notes page. But for now, here’s Brinda’s take on fish sauce, fish sauce alternatives, and why fermentation is an important process when it comes to establishing maximum flavor.

Vegan/Vegetarian Worcestershire Sauce Substitutes

This whole segment of the podcast is derived from Brinda Ayer’s article on Worcestershire sauce substitutes on Food52. One of the remarkable aspects of this article is that approaches Worcestershire sauce substitutes from so many angles. She comes at it from an ingredient perspective (soy-based, fish-based, vinegar-based, wine-based, and wildcard), and each category of substitutes contains multiple levels of complexity to account for what different home chefs may have in their pantries. There are certain webpages on the internet that are definitive, and this is one of them.

According to Brinda, soy (and other vegetable ferments) are incredibly low-touch and high-impact. Fermentation adds layers of flavor to a dish, and omitting a fermented ingredient can leave you with a flat flavor profile. And what’s more, some of the ingredients she champions go through multiple fermentations (e.g. sherry vinegar), rendering layers within layers of flavor. Subtlety? Nuance? This is where it’s found.

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