Beer 101: There is More to Beer than Hops
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.
I have long called hops and bitterness the final frontier for beer. People new to beer can naturally be open to the range of malt flavours because they connect to things we know (e.g., caramel, toffee, coffee, chocolate). For the same reason fruit and other unique additions can be warmly received. But hops is about beer – no other flavour and aroma characteristics exist outside beer. If you are into hop character, you are into beer. Period.
I say all this to establish that this column is not anti-hop. It is pro other things.
My thesis is this: 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. It makes sense. It generally is front and centre. Even in less-hopped styles, hop variety can make a big difference. For example, the same base stout goes from being British to American if you swap out the classic Goldings and Fuggles for Cascade and Citra (I am over-simplifying here, but you get my point). 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. All brewers care about removing chlorine and other additives crucial to keeping drinking water safe, as it can create awful off-flavours. But they also care about the amount of carbonate, magnesium, salt, sulfate, calcium, nitrate and other elements because they can substantially affect the flavour of beer. In British IPAs high levels of bicarbonates, sulfates and other elements is 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 thing that makes beer. Depending on which strain you use, you can create a clean, crisp beer or a funky, earthy, spicy Belgian-like beer, even using the same recipe. Yeast is often an unsung hero in creating beer flavour.
Malt also matters. We have long known that the specialty malts – crystal, munich, chocolate, black patent and so one – 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% 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.
Brewers pay attention to the base malt they use, naturally looking for high quality and consistency. But for most of us it is an after-thought. It is just the starting point and instead we look to specialty malts and hops to tell us what a beer is about.
But we overlook base malt at our 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 2-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, taste 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) couldn’t even start describing the differences between barley varieties.
Because of my lack of knowledge, I can’t really provide any insight into what differentiates barley varieties. I can tell you this – recently I experienced first hand the power of barley variety.
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. I tried all three side-by-side (and blinded). The differences between the three beer were palpable and fascinating (you can read the full results here: http://www.onbeer.org/2017/03/swap-the-malt-troubled-monks-malt-experiment/). 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.
Jason Foster is an Alberta-based beer writer, educator and certified beer judge. He is the beer columnist for CBC Radio’s Radioactive, Edmonton’s Vue Weekly, Saskatoon’s Planet S Magazine and writes regularly for a variety of magazines. He is also the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to craft beer on the prairies and beyond.