I have a vision of the future, one in which beer lovers stand arm in arm, glasses raised, like in that old Coca-Cola commercial. Except in my version, the pints raised are brim full of malty lager beer and not sugary soda. Alas, this global beverage utopia seems but a distant dream, not because the planet will not come to adopt craft beer as their preferred beverage, but because once transitioned, these craft converts will likely turn their backs on the lagers they once cradled.
Despite popular beer geek antipathy towards the big guys, the result of years of low-brown television ads and decades of ubiquitous, uninspired bottles of light, I believe the consumer disconnect over lager is more fundamental. It stems from a lack of understanding and appreciation of the beauty of malt.
As an illustration, 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?
While deep golden fields of gently flowing barley remain an enduring American symbol, having been enshrined in forms as diverse as America the Beautiful and countless mass-market beer commercials, their contribution to the final product remains elusive to most drinkers. This was not always the case. For a long period of global brewing history, brewers raised and dried their own barley. As the brewing business became more commercial, the malting process became more industrialized, offering brewers new cost savings over their resource intensive operations. In the modern era, very few breweries perform their own malting, beyond the occasional, makeshift roasting of malts for a specialty beer, such as a smoked porter. In treating malt as just another raw material for purchase in fifty pound bags or by the ton, blown into windowless silos, we’ve lost touch with the ingredient widely considered to provide the soul of beer.
An alarming number of self-professed craft beer fans dismiss these flavor-friendly beers as boring, pedestrian offerings only suited to novice, unrefined drinkers. As with such casual dismissals of all lager beers, Saint Arnold and Ninkasi shake their respective heads at such ironic beer bigotry. Often the focal point of less flavor obvious lager styles, malt centric beers celebrate and equally complex and sophisticated flavor palate. Whether used as a sweet and earthy backbone in otherwise crisp, hoppy German pilsners or as the center of attention in rich bocks and robust Scotch ales, malt brings more than sugar for alcohol conversion to the world’s best beers.
The subtle charms of different malt varieties bring balance and nuance in an extreme era where humulin overload is the popular trend. Whether bready, toasted, velvety, sweet, rich, or robust, different malt varieties can add deep layers of character that are too often underappreciated by many consumers. For their parts, brewers are sometimes too focused, whether through routine, price consciousness, or ease of habit, with using the same malts in nearly every beer they brew. Yet many manage to simultaneously navigate the complicated engineering and wrangling necessary to keep multiple yeast strains in-house. As one well-known brewer, often featured in these pages, told me, “Many brewers just do not understand malt?
As we enter the fall and winter, times of the year when great American malty beers enjoy their widest availability, take some time to give your patronage those brewers who celebrate the oft-neglected yang to hop’s yin. And maybe we can help the world learn to love malt again.