Delicate dance of ingredients
I love hops. I love big, bitter beer. I love the way hops can offer a huge range of flavours and aromas, from fruity to grassy to earthy to citrusy to funky. One of the great shifts in the beer world has been (many) consumers’ embrace of hops.
That’s a good thing, the more hops the better. But, I am here to suggest there is more to the flavour of beer than hops. Sure, hop hits you in the face, making you notice it and drawing a lot of the attention, especially in hop-accented styles. But we ignore the other ingredients at our peril. Allow me to expand.
Water makes up the vast majority of beer’s ingredients, and consumers spend most of our time ignoring it. But to brewers, water—or more accurately water chemistry—matters a lot. Water contains all sorts of dissolved minerals, compounds and elements. The amount of carbonate, magnesium, salt, sulfate, calcium, nitrate and other elements can substantially affect the flavour of beer. In British IPAs, high levels of bicarbonates, sulfates and other elements are crucial for drawing out the hop bitterness. In contrast, a classic Czech Pilsner needs very soft water, low in most minerals. Water matters.
Yeast, of course, is the ingredient that makes beer. Depending on which strain you use, you can create a clean, crisp beer or a funky, earthy, spicy Belgian-like beer using the same recipe. Yeast is often an unsung hero in creating beer flavour.
Malt also matters. We have long known the specialty malts—crystal, munich, chocolate, black patent and so on—are crucial to creating beer flavour. They add particular flavours that define styles and make beer distinctive. But specialty malts rarely constitute more than 20 percent of a beer’s grain bill. Most of the malt volume comes from what brewers call “base malt,” a pale, lightly kilned malt that does the heavy lifting around adding sugar to feed the yeast.
We overlook base malt at our own peril. First, there are many ways to create base malt. Techniques like floor-malting and decisions around moisture level and kiln temperature can make a huge difference in the final outcome of the malt. Standard North American two-row base malt—while an amazing product—tastes nothing like a floor-malted Maris Otter from Britain. The latter is softer, fuller and more rounded. Pilsner malt, again created from a different process, tastes different yet again.
Brewers understand this to a degree, but it is something lost on most consumers. As is the question of barley variety. Most of us are well-versed in the world of hop varieties, the flavour differences between a Mosaic and a Hallertauer and so forth. Very few of us (including me) could even start describing the differences between barley varieties.
Red Deer brewery Troubled Monk recently engaged in an experiment. They made three versions of their blonde ale, Golden Gaetz, a beer noted for a delicate malt flavour and subdued hop notes. One was their usual recipe. The other two used, exclusively, different barley varieties. All three were tried side-by-side (blindfolded). The differences between the three beer were palpable and fascinating. Everything else was the same—the only thing that changed was the base malt.
It is a good lesson in remembering that beer is the amalgam of all of its core ingredients—water, malt, hops and yeast. Each brings something to the party and we ignore their impact at our peril.