Malt may be the most recognizable difference between craft beers and national brands. Early North American barley varieties differed considerably from European strains. The hot, dry summers on the central prairies of the United States and Canada produced barley that contained larger amounts of protein than European varieties grown in cooler, wetter climates. High protein barley provides high levels of enzymes that are well suited for use with enzyme-less adjuncts like the unmalted corn and rice common in North America. The use of local grains is consistent with other indigenous beers throughout the world that also make use of locally grown grains, such as wheat, rye, oats, sorghum or millet.
Unmalted rice and corn, which are still commonly found in modern-day American lagers, contribute a milder or lighter taste than malt and may explain why the majority of US beer drinkers to this day seem to prefer lighter bodied beers—simply because generation after generation grew up drinking them!
In contrast, craft brewers typically use 100 percent malt, including a variety of specialty malts that add color and flavor. Because many specialty malts are highly roasted, many craft beers have a deep color and malty profile that can include flavors of toasted bread, caramel, or even coffee.
Hops contribute bitterness to beer, and craft beers may have two or more times the hops than national beers. The bitter acids in hops counteract the sweetness of the malt, helping to balance the flavor of the final product. Because specialty breweries typically use 100 percent malt in their beers, craft beers can be expected to have more bitterness than national brands. Oils in hops also add a spicy or floral flavor and aroma that are typically absent in national brands but common in certain craft beer styles.
In addition to hops, craft brewers may use other flavoring agents like spices and fruits. For example, stouts may be flavored with coffee or chocolate. Wheat beers may contain cherries, strawberries or raspberries, and a Belgian-style wheat beer known as “wit” is brewed with a portion of unmalted wheat and flavored with coriander and bitter orange.