A couple of weeks ago I did a column devoted to my favorite ingredient in beer: hops. Now I think it would be useful to cover the other end of the hoppy/malty spectrum that helps us understand the flavor of beer.
“Malt” is actually short for “malted grain.” As with hops, Wikipedia is a good place find a basic understanding: “Malting is a process applied to cereal grains, in which the grains are made to germinate by soaking in water and are then quickly halted from germinating further by drying/heating with hot air. Thus, malting is a combination of two processes: the sprouting process and the kiln-drying process.”
The science is a bit complex, but the important point about malting is that it develops enzymes that allow the grain’s starches to eventually be converted to fermentable sugars, and that’s where the alcohol in beer comes from. The base grain for all beer is barley, but wheat, rye and oats are all very common in craft beer, as they enhance the flavor and body of certain beer styles. Rice and corn are very common in mass-produced lagers, as they lighten both the flavor and body of beer.
I must now take issue with one of the advertising slogans of a craft brewer I very much respect, Jim Koch. In some commercials for his Samuel Adams beers, he says that “Hops are to beer what grapes are to wine.” Since the sugars that produce the alcohol in wine come from grapes, and the sugars that produce the alcohol in beer come from malt, it would be more accurate to say malt is to beer what grapes are to wine. Wine contains nothing analogous to hops (score one for beer).
Not only does wine not contain anything like hops, but whereas the flavor qualities of grapes are largely at the mercy of the weather (and the quality of the soil), the flavor qualities of malt are largely determined by the maltster. And the possibilities are almost endless.
Malt can be kilned at a wide array of temperatures to produce many different color and flavor profiles, it can be roasted like coffee beans and it can even be smoked. Sometimes grain is kilned or roasted without first being malted, in which case it is technically called a “specialty grain.” But “malt” is still a popular catch-all term for any grain used in brewing. Some common types of malt produced from barley are crystal malt (rated according to its color on the Lovibond scale), biscuit malt, chocolate malt, aromatic malt, Munich malt, Vienna malt, honey malt, black patent and roasted barley.
While the flavor of hop-heavy beers is marked by citrus, pine, spicy, floral and herbal notes, the flavor of malt-heavy beers is marked by sweet, caramel, bready, nutty, coffee and chocolate notes. One of the amazing things about beer is that not only are some brews made with actual caramel, nuts, coffee or chocolate, you can create many of those flavors with the use of various specialty grains.
Since hops have a minimal impact on the appearance of beer, it’s impossible to determine whether a beer is exceptionally hoppy just by looking at it. Malt, on the other hand, is the primary ingredient responsible for beer’s color. So as a general rule of thumb, the darker a beer looks, the more intense the malt flavors will be. The basic spectrum of malty ales runs from amber ales to brown ales to porters to stouts to imperial stouts. The basic spectrum of malty lagers runs from dunkels to bocks to doppelbocks to Baltic porters (yep, most porters are fermented with ale yeast, but Baltic porters are fermented cold, with lager yeast).
I hope most of the folks who like beer enough to read this column know by now that the color of beer has nothing to do with its alcohol content. There is a misconception among some light beer drinkers that dark beers are “strong” in every way. But the color of beer is determined by the type of grains used in brewing—grains kilned at high temperatures are darker and make dark beer. It is the amount of grain that determines the alcohol content. More grain used per gallon of finished beer will yield more fermentable sugars and thus a higher alcohol content. It’s possible to make a pitch black beer at 3 percent ABV, and it’s possible to make a straw-colored beer with 10 percent ABV.
A final point: while it is common to refer to beers as either malty or hoppy, some beers are very much both. A dopplebock is intensely malty with barely any discernable hop character, and a double IPA is a hop bomb where malt is only used as a necessary backbone, but many amber ales and brown ales have strong malt character balanced by robust hoppiness. Even some imperial stouts are more hoppy than some double IPAs, but your taste buds won’t perceive them that way because of the intensity of the roasted barley. Contrast all of this complexity with wine, which can only be grapey.
As always, your understanding of these concepts will be greatly enhanced by real-world experience. I think it’s time for a brown ale.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org