Malty

Unlike some (Melissa Cole, p6; Mark Dredge), we don’t object to the use of the terms ‘malty’ and ‘hoppy’ as over-arching descriptors, but one thing does bug us: ‘malty’ shouldn’t just mean ‘not hoppy’.

Malt flavour is a positive addition to the flavour of a beer, giving it another dimension. The best hoppy beers — that is, those with a pronounced flowery hop aroma and/or bitterness — also have malt flavour, usually sneaking up as a bonus in the finish.

These are the kind of things we think of (no doubt via Michael Jackson and others) when we spot that taste:

  • toasted nuts and seeds
  • fresh bread
  • crackers

It’s dry as in crisp, savoury but not salty, and just downright wholesome.

The best of the lagers we mentioned yesterday all have veritable maltiness, as do many of the pale-n-hoppy c.4% cask ales at which North of England breweries seem to excel. Our local equivalent, Potion 9 at the Star Inn, is defined by bright citrusy hops, but it’s that bread-crust and cream cracker snap that ultimately makes it so satisfying — the bun without which a burger wouldn’t be half as enjoyable.

A beer with fairly restrained hop character might allow the malt to take centre stage, and that can be good too.

But some beers aren’t hoppy or malty — they’re just sugary, gritty, vegetal or (worst of all) watery.

Don’t blame malt for that.

Living Beer and the Rhetoric of Whole Food

Wholefood store scanned from a 1970s cookery book.

We haven’t drawn any firm conclusions on this subject yet, but see what you make of these quotations. (Our emphasis throughout.)

“For this reason ‘whole’ corn meal, which contains the germ, will have a greater life-containing, life-giving quality than the ‘degermed’ cornmeal found in supermarkets. Whole cornmeal is a “live” food — it spoils when the oil in the germ becomes rancid. Degermed cornmeal is a ‘dead’ food, as it lacks the germ (of life). Hence, it can be kept on grocery shelves for months without spoiling, though like all milled grains it does become stale.” Edward Espe Brown, Tassajara Bread Book, 1970.

“…’natural foods’ now threaten to replace ‘gourmet cooking’ as the main topic of food conversations… More than just a revival of old familiar food fads, this is part of the general concern now felt about the deterioration of our environment. Boredom with too much smooth, bland, overprocessed and sweet food has helped to attract not only the expected faddists, hypochondriacs and axe-grinders, but at least a proportion of scientists, especially nutritionists and conservationists.” ‘From Cranks to Nuts’, The Times, 7 August 1971.

“We opted at first for a high strength bitter brewed just from malt, hops, yeast and water. As well as being more wholesome this would also be simpler to produce.” Martin Sykes recalling the founding of the Selby Brewery in 1972, Called to the Bar, 1991.

“…the adulterated sludge that is glorified under the name of keg.” Michael Hardman, CAMRA’s What’s Brewing?, June 1972.

“The first distinction that must be made by the discerning drinker of draught beer is between keg, top-pressure, and traditional (the Real Thing)… traditional beer is alive while keg ber, like most bottled beer, is dead.” Richard Boston, ‘The Quick and the Dead’, The Guardian, 25 August 1973.

“British brewers are practically free to tamper with their beer as much as they want, unlike their colleagues in West Germany, who are forbidden by law to use any ingredient other than malt, hops and water… Fortunately, many brewers in Britain have kept faithful to nature, and beer brewed and served naturally can be found in nearly every corner of the country.” Michael Hardman, Beer Naturally, 1978.

“‘Real ale’ is the popular name for traditional beer brewed for centuries in Britain from malted barley and hops, with hundreds of regional variations in recipe and taste… Many brewers, big and small, use adjuncts in the brewing process. Flaked maize, potato starch, pasta flour, rice grits, malt and hop extracts will probably do you no harm but they are detrimental to the flavour of the beer.” CAMRA Good Beer Guide, 1978.

Poor, faithful old sugar, written out of history

The Corrections

Boak: This has a really nice malt flavour — that grainy, chewy breadiness

Nearby Bloke: Err… correction! It’s obvious this is made from only pale malt which contributes exactly zero flavour to a beer.

Boak: Well, I’m thinking of the malt flavour you might get in a good lager like–

Nearby Bloke: That’s hops! If there’s flavour in a pale beer, it’s hops. (Face reddening) PALE MALT DOESN’T ADD FLAVOUR!

Boak: (Realising she can’t win, hoping he’ll go away) Uh-huh.

Nearby Bloke: (Sensing that he’s being humoured) No, seriously, and I should know. I’m a beer expert myself.

We sometimes move in geeky circles, it can’t be denied, and we geeks occasionally struggle with some elements of human interaction. Aggressively correcting people is one of the worst habits of the hardened geek.

Nearby Bloke could have started the above conversation with: “Excuse me, I was interested in what you were saying there, because I’ve always understood that pale malt contributes little flavour to a beer….”

Even if you are one hundred per cent sure you’re right, what is to be gained from entering a conversation with a bullish cry of WRONG! and a hectoring tone? It leaves you nowhere to go but redder, shriller and weirder.

PS. Another bad habit of geeks: referring to large groups of people as ‘sheep’ or ‘idiots’.

The Many Variables That Make a Beer

Packets of hops.

When we asked how Belgian beer could be so cheap, Matthew Curtis suggested on Twitter that their tendency towards relatively conservative hopping could be part of the answer.

This got us thinking. After all, though hop aroma is not something we especially associate with Belgian beer, it is certainly not the case that Belgian beer is bland or homogenous.

Hops are great — we love them — but their amount and variety are far from being the only variables a brewer has to play with.

In fact, two beers made with simple pale malt and ‘boring’ Fuggles could end up tasting and looking completely different, and equally mindblowing, if the following variables were carefully manipulated by a skilled brewer. (Or screwed up by a lazy one.)

Sugars
Dark or clear? Unrefined? Caramelised?
Long boils to darken/caramelise sugars in the wort.

Yeast
Strain selection.
Fermentation temperature.
Blending of multiple strains.
Refinement/customisation in the lab.

Water/minerals
Mash liquor chemistry/softness.
Boil liquor chemistry/softness.

Malt
Custom/homemade malts.
Creative ‘misuse’ of specialty malts.
Belgian/German/British/US version of standard types, e.g. Pilsner malt.
Mash temperature and timing.
Extracts.

Additives
Heather (as in Williams Bros. Fraoch).
Salt (as in gose).
Spices (e.g. coriander).
Herbs.
Chocolate.
Coffee.
Lactose and other unfermentable sugars.
Soured/stale/aged beer.
M&Ms, otter spittle, Mr Kipling apple pies, and so on.

Conditioning
Temperature.
Carbonation levels.
Wood ageing.

And finally…
Hop freshness/age.
Timings of hop additions.
Extract, pellet or whole leaf?

Bamberg smells nice

We’re all used to judging the aroma of the beer we’re enjoying, but it’s rare to be able to enjoy the aroma of the town where it’s being made. Bamberg is fairly small and so dominated by brewing that the very air is full of it.

When they’re making Rauchbier, the air fills with the smell of smoke, making a summer evening feel rather autumnal.

At the other end of town within sniffing distance of the colossal Weyermann malting plant, every time the breeze blows there’s a powerful scent of toasting, sugary grains in the air.

Makes you thirsty.