Floating in the Malt River
The last decade has seen an arms race among American craft brewers and the weapon of choice has been the noble hop. The International Bitterness Unit scale has been turned into a scoreboard and brewers have acted like the Harlem Globetrotters, running up the points against the hapless Washington Generals.
Nearly lost in the wave of dry hopping, wet hopping, hop infusing and triple hopping has been arguably the most important element in beer: malt.
Malt influences many more elements of the beer in your glass than any other ingredient. The level of roast of the malt gives beer its color. A beer’s head results from the interaction of carbon dioxide, the byproduct of fermenting grains, and the proteins in beer provided by malted grains. Malt notes influence the aroma that emerges when you pour a beer. Haze in most unfiltered beer is a result of malt. The alcohol content in beer is a direct reflection of the converted sugars that malt provides. Finally, a beer’s flavor, balance, mouthfeel and weight all are derived in large part from the type and amount of malt that a brewer selects.
Just as brewers have found a way to bombard taste buds with enormous levels of hop bitterness, they are equally capable of grabbing our attention with malt. And beers like Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout and Bell’s Expedition Stout have documented the powers of malt.
I’m a big fan of bock beer going way back,” says Brendan Moylan of Moylan’s Brewery & Restaurant in Novato, CA, “I’ve always been a fan of malty beers.” It shows in Moylan’s Golden Ale, Irish Red Ale, Kilt Lifter Scottish Ale, Dry Stout and Ryan Sullivan’s Imperial Stout.
Originally, imperial stouts were built to withstand the voyage from England to Russia, and meet the flavor demands of the Czar’s court. Moylan’s Ryan Sullivan’s Imperial Stout gets its name from the bagpiper that plays at the restaurant each St. Patrick’s Day and its rich complex flavor from a total of nine different malts. The malt also provides the fuel needed for the beer’s hefty 10 percent alcohol by volume kick.
When you talk malt in beer you inevitably find yourself bumping around traditional European brewing towns. Munich, Dusseldorf, Vienna, Dublin, Bamberg, London and other brewing centers are known among brewers for the malt styles they perfected.
Moylan notes that even with consolidation among malting companies the large number of malts on the market is a bonanza for brewers because means they can select traditional styles in making authentic recipes. He points out while a shortage of hops received a good deal of media attention back in 2007, “the 40 percent increase in malt prices has been worse for brewers than the 350 percent hop price increase, because we use so much malt.”
South Carolina Brewer Tom Davis created Thomas Creek Deep Water Doppelbock in 1984 as a homebrewer and worked on perfecting the recipe before finally brewing the dark lager commercially in 1999. However, it was not until the summer of 2007 when South Carolina legalized higher gravity beers—popping the cap on the 6.25 percent alcohol by volume limits that had been in place—that the Greenville brewery could adjust its recipe and brew a true doppelbock at 7 percent alcohol by volume.
I really enjoy the drinkability of the doppelbock style,” Davis says. “I love hops and I love malt, it really depends on the mood I’m in, the food I’m eating and the weather. I tend to think of malty beer in the cooler weather.” There are six different malts used in making Deep Water Doppelbock, including Bonlander Munich. On days when it is made, the brewery is filled with delectable chocolate and roasted malt aromas.
Malty beers come in a number of different forms. Some started out as seasonal varieties meant to have a little extra kick to ward off the cold. Others were designed to be full flavored for holiday celebrations. Still others, such as dry stouts and some porters, are meant to be satisfying session brews. You can have malt without dialing up the alcohol content.
If hops are the brewer’s equivalent to spices then malt is the meat of a beer. Just like different cuts of meat have different levels of marbling that spins of flavor, brewers can dial up the malt to entice our palates. Now is the perfect time of year to make a malty beer Your Next Beer.
Rick Lyke is a freelance drinks writer based in Charlotte, NC. He recently became a grandfather.