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.

10 replies on “Malty”

I guess one reason that those don’t spring to our minds is that we’ve hardly ever drunk them. Even so, my memory is that, though they do have a distinctive flavour, they really taste mostly of milk and sugar. Will have to try some now.

Hmmm not convinced, I’m afraid. If you accept “hoppy” as an over-arching description; and so you should btw, then “malty” is its natural opposite. Perhaps it shouldn’t be. But in the real world people who describe a beer as “malty” to me usually mean that it is not hoppy and they mean that is not a good thing.

Real world usage always has to be respected, not least because it’s almost impossible to turn around. ‘Balanced’ is similar — ought to mean a skilfully composed beer but, in practice, used as a defensive marketing term by middle-of-the-road regional/family brewers, usually means a terribly bland one.

But if ‘malty’ means ‘not hoppy enough for people who like hoppy beers’, it’s not actually describing anything. (And ‘balanced’ can be used the same way – Gazza Prescott said somewhere “if a beer tastes ‘balanced’, there’s something wrong”.)

I really like a malty bitter, whether it’s uncompromisingly tannic (Sussex), big, sweet and malt-loaf-y (Wales) or somewhere in between (Adnams). But ‘malt’ is a flavour descriptor – Spitfire isn’t ‘malty’.

Such word snobbery is traded in by those with aspirations. Folk who can recommend eight distict beers are the best match for a shrimp and avacado sandwich. Of course it’s silly. There are degrees of specificity and abstraction in descriptive language. A primary and helpful word for an IPA is hoppy. It is the word I use to warn off others I know hate them. They don’t care if to them it is vomitously grapefruity or vomitously pine needled.

Malty is even more political. It’s just a top level descriptor. Trend setters have come to fear it. Having been raised so late it is unfashionable yet, by definition, annoyingly present. As a result of its denial, no lexicon of sub-attributes is developed let alone put into use. It’s what makes beer lovely and sets it apart from wines and ciders. The carbs. The calories. The heft. The thing the army marched on. Any old fool can open a packet of hops and make the beer taste like what’s in the packet.

Just spent a few days up north drinking cask ales that were uniformly pale, aromatic and sherbert-like. Not enough bitterness, not enough malt.

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