Vail seminar showcases malt, the unsung hero of beer flavor
Malt can work magic when it comes to the flavor of a beer, and three barley-brained brewers got together on Saturday, Jan. 11, at the Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival in Vail to present a seminar on why craft breweries are leading the charge to get a little more creative with their grain bills.
The production of malted barley, one of the four main ingredients in beer, has become highly industrialized, with large farms cranking out uniform rows of grain that become the base for brews all over the country.
“Everything that’s out there is being developed for acreage yield, extract and low protein,” said Tim Matthews, head brewer at Oskar Blues Brewing Co. in Longmont.
Matthews partnered with a grower in Oregon and Colorado Malting Co. in Alamosa to develop a barley variety called Full Pint, the solitary malt used in Oskar Blues’ The Full Pint Strong Ale. He said building relationships with growers and maltsters is integral to creating great beer.
“Malt has lost some of the romanticism and sensationalism because we’re not focusing on the flavor,” Matthews said. “Auditing the flavor of your beer is huge. Not all malts are created equal, and they need to focus on their craft, and as brewers we need to hold them to that.”
Will Myers, brewmaster at Cambridge Brewing Co., has teamed up with Valley Malt down the road in Hadley, Mass., to develop malts for some of his beers. He said pushing malt often leads people to think the beer will be sweet, but his Tripel Threat Belgian tripel proves that a big, malty beer can have a lot of flavor without being overly cloying.
“It’s something that really interests me because one of my primary concerns with any beer we make is that it stays dry and balanced and drinkable, even with a 10 percent Belgian ale,” he said. “As Americans, we have a tendency to think of flavor as sweetness; we’re living in the high-fructose corn syrup age.”
Myers said with big Belgian beers, the flavor comes from the complexity and interplay of the ingredients, rather than a saccharine smack to the taste buds. Instead of using a neutral base of two-row barley malt, Tripel Threat is made with a blend of three pilsner malts.
“On top of that, I also use pale malted barley that’s grown and malted organically in Massachusetts,” he said. “It’s possible to coax a lot of complexity out of something that’s very simple. We’re relying on the yeast and the malt talking to each other and bringing out the best qualities of each.”
Unlike some micro-maltings in Canada and Colorado that have a lot of experience in growing malting varieties of barley, Valley Malt is fairly new to the crop, so the malt provided to Cambridge Brewing Co. is often inconsistent. But Myers said it’s worth it to travel through all of the hiccups of small-farm operations to get to the unique flavors only found in the malt.
“We’re heading toward finding farmers who are willing to grow historic varieties and new breeds of malting variety grains for us,” he said. “The focus is really on flavor. One of the things that’s most enjoyable for us working with this is that you get different flavors. The protein might be a little high or something else might be a little off, but you are capitalizing on some new and interesting flavors, as well as helping the economy and small family farms.”
Buy the farm
John Mallett, director of operations at Bell’s Brewery, said about five to seven years ago, that brewery bought some land in mid-central Michigan to grow its own barley.
“The picture on the bottle is actually the barley field at the brewery,” he said, pointing to a bottle of the brewery’s Christmas Ale. “We wanted to grow barley, and there was a farmer up there who had successfully made it to the Anheuser-Busch specification. So we contracted with that farmer to grow barley for us.”
Bell’s holiday beer is a Scotch ale weighing in at 5.4 percent alcohol by volume.
“This is the harvest festival beer for us; this is barley that was still seed sitting in a farmer’s shed at this time last year,” Mallett said. “We wanted to make something that’s really soft and easy to drink that celebrates the flavor of what the malt can bring.”
Mallett said large brewers aren’t necessarily looking for big, malty flavors, so the craft beer industry is really the driving force behind resurrecting the time-consuming art of blending malts and reviving barley strains.
“There are research efforts going on where we’re growing some historic barleys,” Mallett said. “For the beer lovers, we’re going to see some cool stuff in the coming years.”
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