MALT HAS NEVER BEEN the heralded part of the better beer revolution. Hops dominate the conversations of newbies and experts alike. Citra, Centennial, Nelson, all words even casual beer fans know and discuss with great glee. Yeast has also developed rock star status in recent years with the growing popularity of wild and sour beers. Brett, Pedio and Lacto now firmly in the craft beer drinker’s lingo. Even water gets shout-outs from famed sources such as Burton, Pilsen and Dublin. But when it comes to malt, this workhorse ingredient gets no love.
There has long been great antipathy among beer geeks toward big brewers and their mass produced products. Following years of lowbrow television ads and decades of ubiquitous, uninspired bottles of “light”, it is not hard to understand why beer lovers gravitated towards their polar opposites in terms of alcohol and hop content. This movement, however, is not without consequence as consumers have largely disconnected from full-flavored malt beers, including non-American light styles of lager. This consumer disconnect over malt beer and lager in particular comes from a lack of understanding and appreciation of the beauty of malt.
As a way of example, ask your customers or employees to quickly name three hop varieties. Now try and do the same for types of malted barley – a taller and perhaps insurmountable task for even the most passionate enthusiast. And when was the last time you heard a brewer brag about or advertise the types of malt used in his new beer?
After a punishing decade of alcohol, hops, extreme, and excess, brewers and drinkers alike have been returning to less aggressive environs. Despite the meteoric rise of India Pale Ales and other hoppy ales, small patches of lager beer, celebrating subtlety and nuance, have recently started to crop up. At beer festivals, brewers started proudly showcasing their pilsners, helles and other lager styles. Not so much following a trend as brewing a beer they want to drink after a long day in the brewhouse, this expansion of flavorful but still not ostentatious offerings signals a new day for craft brewing – one where more of everything is no longer the driving battle cry.
Instead, customers are starting to finally appreciate the beauty and nuance available in malt, things that can be appreciated when the hops are dialed back. Some brewers have tried to Americanize the traditional pilsners, either adding spicy and more aggressive new German hop variants or by using popular American juicy hops, such as Citra, in these new beers. Whether this is heresy is for the consumer to decide but many such beers are drinkable charmers to be sure.
While vast, yellow fields of rising and flowing barley remain an enduring American symbol, the charms of malt remain elusive to many beer drinkers. As we enter the fall and winter seasons, when great American malty beers enjoy their greatest availability, give some thought to directing customers towards the oft-neglected yang to hop’s yin.
BOSTON BEER COMPANY
One of the longest running fall seasonals, the first sight of this popular Sam Adams product tells you that your summer clock is running down. In a marketplace filled with dozens of questionable “pumpkin” beers – often spiced to within an inch of their lives – and other disappointing fall seasonal ales, it is a nice respite to have Boston Beer give a product that offers a steady hand through the onslaught that is the fall seasonal market. Samuel Adams Oktoberfest pours with a solid inch of off-white head and a smooth, consistent amber hue. The aroma immediately strikes you of a melange of malts, with caramel and toasted notes predominating. The flavor follows suit, with bready elements playing off caramel and even toffee, with touches of rougher grain. With its wide distribution, this Sam Adams product is always a safe bet for fall.
JACK’S ABBY BREWING COMPANY
A tongue-in-cheek offering from the brewery heralding great plumbers of history, including one working for Jack’s Abby itself, this beer boasts Munich malt and is a classic take on the Marzen style. Pours with a light white head, the beer gives way to bright amber orange hues. The nose is all toasted and grainy malts, with big Munich malt notes, and touches of fruit and a kiss of noble hops. The aroma follows suit, with biscuit and toasted malt and occasional balancing hints of hops and fruit. A well-rounded fall seasonal that both epitomizes the style and helps carry brewing tradition forward.
FIRESTONE WALKER BREWING COMPANY
PASO ROBLES, CALIFORNIA
FOR A brewery that is so well known for its vast line of hoppy ales, Firestone-Walker is also a masterful brewer of terrific and classic lagers. Starting with its exceptional Pivo Pils, the brewery continues offering seasonal lager treats, including its excellent Oaktoberfest. Brewed with Pilsner and Vienna malts and balanced by Hallertauer hops, the beer pours with a lighter than usual amber color and solid boost of carbonation and head. The aromas tend more toward the spicy and floral than many other American versions of the style, but there accompanies them a substantial kick of toasted malts. The flavor follows suit, with zesty hop bites edging around the substantial German malt flavors of toast, biscuit and a touch of caramel. If you are looking for a drier or less malt forward Oktoberfest style, the Oaktoberfest is a great suggestion.
NARRAGANSETT BREWING COMPANY
PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND
IN THE conversation about flavorful beer, local Narragansett usually gets shunned or overlooked. Its ubiquitous Lager beer has seamlessly re-entered the New England market as a throwback heritage brand. So popular has this beer proven that ’Gansett is preparing to open its own brewing facility in Rhode Island. While the Lager may be a mild step up (or down depending on your opinion) from the regular macro brands, its seasonal program is a diamond in the rough. One such release that should gain your attention is the brewer’s fall Fest beer. Made with classic Vienna, Pilsner and Munich malts and balanced by Northern Brewer and Tettnanger hops, this easy drinker remains proud of its solid malt backbone. Pouring with a standard half inch foam head, the aroma of caramel and toasted malts is on the lighter side but still pleases. There are additional touches of hop zest, a touch of fruit, and cracker or biscuit malt. The flavor steps up to caramel and mildly sweet malt notes. There is a balance of fruit and sharper hop notes but malt is the focus here. This version of the style is not going to blow you away with flavor but it is one that you can drink a couple of very easily. Often served in tall sixteen-ounce pounder cans, the Fest remains one of the best deals for Oktoberfest fans.