These days, anybody with a dumper of malt and an overabundance of fresh hops can make a lip-smackingly tasty beer. In typically American form—big, brash, blustery—homebrewers and craft brewers alike have piled malt upon hops upon malt, creating a breed of beer that relies on brute force for its appeal. Delightful, maybe, but such beers rarely are subtle. Sometimes they are really too strong for sustained quaffing.
Throughout history, for reasons of privation, taxation, profit or temperance, beers have weakened over time, typically settling into a gravity range of between 1030 and 1040, far below the swaggering new brews of America’s new brewers.
In most times and places, there is a need for a quenching beer that can be consumed in quantity without putting the drinker into a compromised state too quickly. Sometimes these everyday brews are truly watery, with little to recommend them to a serious beer lover. Some, by contemporary reports or recipes, must have been awful.
But the limitations of low-gravity brewing can spur the brewer on to produce beers of great artistry and seductiveness—using less material forces the brewer to make the most of what he or she uses. The best ingredients, carefully assembled, processed and fermented in a way that maximizes their best qualities is the basic plan. Serving the beer in superb condition is the crowning touch. Here’s an expansion of that scheme, along with a trick or two.
Use the best malt.
British bitter, when well made, is a shining standard for modest-gravity beer with great depth and personality, much of which is due to the character of the malt. Some of the best bitters use an old, difficult-to-farm variety called Marris Otter. Beers made from it have a nutty depth that’s hard to describe. Yes, it’s more expensive, but for the homebrewer, it’s just a matter of pennies. If you can afford this magazine, you can afford the best malt.
In general, British and other European malts will bring more flavor to a beer. American malts have their place in brewing, but remember that they are specifically cultivated to brew cold, fizzy, flavorless beers. Caveat maltor.
Use the best hops.
This doesn’t need an awful lot of explanation, except to say that not only are the flavors of low-alpha aroma hops better, but if you use them, you will have a larger quantity than if you use high-alpha hops, which means a greater amount of hop aroma in the finished beer. And you can use large quantities of finishing hops (1 to 2 ounces per 5 gallons) without adding excessive bitterness.
Use lightly colored malts for much of the color.
The color added by a tablespoon of black malt or a pound of crystal might seem similar, but there’s a vast difference in flavor. This applies all up and down the color scale. One of the reasons that a Munich dunkel tastes so rich is the very high proportion of Munich malt, a relatively lightly kilned product. Munich malt is one of my favorites for many styles.
Another malt that’s not used widely enough is mild ale malt. It’s similar in color to Munich and was traditionally used as a base malt for milds and stouts (in the 20th century), where it laid down a full, malty base to build on.
Choose your ingredients so each one contributes to the overall effect. For a smooth, chocolaty mild ale, start with the mild ale malt I just mentioned, where it gives a round richness, similar to the sweet component of the chocolate flavor. Add to that some amber/biscuit malt, also a traditional component of such beers, for a toasty mocha flavor, sort of the mid-range of the chocolate taste. Top it off with a small amount of smooth, roasty black malt, which evokes the sharp roastiness of bittersweet chocolate.
The character of the hops plays into this as well. I would use Northern brewer, which to my taste has a certain chocolaty bitterness. Further, I would choose a yeast that accentuates the sweetness of malt, such as the Fuller’s strain. Layered. Luscious.
Boost the body.
A little more body and sweetness can make a beer drink bigger than it really is. During World War I, the British were very interested in Belgian witbier brewing techniques, which at the time were turning out palatable beers with a gravity of around 1025. The Belgians did this by mashing in, then draining off all the enzyme-rich liquid. They then boiled the liquid, which destroyed the enzymes but preferentially left alpha amylase, which would produce a poorly fermentable wort. The resulting beer was somewhat sweet.
There are a number of other, saner techniques for doing this. Mashing at higher temperatures—155 degrees F instead of 150 degrees F—is one. Crystal malt is a proven body-booster. The judicious use of a little lactose can enrich a beer. Adjuncts such as oats, wheat, or rye contain proteins and gummy carbohydrates that can enhance body and head retention. Salt in small quantities (1/8 to 1/2 teaspoon per 5 gallons) will add a sense of palate fullness, a trick used by brewers of gose beer, a light brew from eastern Germany. Many old brewing books make the same claim for coriander, and indeed this spice does find its way into several very light styles.
Develop extra flavor from processes.
Brewer/Owner Chuck Skypeck of Bosco’s in Memphis has an unusual touch for his house blonde beer—it’s a stone-brewed beer. Hot glowing rocks are added to the brew kettle, where they hiss, fume, and generally wreak havoc. The resulting caramelization adds a really lovely layer of caramel to an already well-brewed beer. Small wonder that this is Bosco’s most popular beer.
You can achieve a similar effect without all the drama by cooking a small amount of wort or extract in your kettle until it is boiled down to just the sugars and other solids, where after a while it will begin to caramelize and darken. An old commercial brewing trick is to light the fire under the kettle before running in the wort, which will produce a similar effect when the wort finally hits hot copper. This probably won’t work in a home brewery, due to the small thermal mass of the typical homebrew kettle.
Spices and herbs have a place.
They’re not for everybody, or for every beer, but let’s not forget that the hallowed hop is an herb like all the others. Coriander, orange peel, grains of paradise, ginger, and other spices have long been used to give beers an extra depth. Most of the old recipes call for smaller quantities (surprise!) than your typical homebrewed holiday beer, so the effect must have been subtle. In most of the really elegant spiced beers, the spices just add a little extra dimension, one more layer of flavor between the malt and hops. And some spices–black pepper, for example–can help to enhance the perceptions of other flavors, exactly the same purpose they serve in cuisine.
Pay attention to condition.
Fortunately, fining and filtration are seldom necessary in homebrewing, so the concern about stripping the life from our beers this way isn’t an issue. Nonetheless, it’s especially important that the lighter sort of beers be carbonated appropriately for the style, then served with a perfect layer of foam, in the correct glassware at an ideal temperature. All of these qualities will vary with the style of beer, so dig out your Michael Jackson and get cracking. Another pint beckons!
Randy Mosher is a freelance art and creative director, lecturer, and author of numerous books and articles on beer and brewing.