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.
The limitations of low-gravity brewing can spur the brewer on to produce beers of great artistry and seductiveness.
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.