Nearly every day someone stumbles upon this blog with the search query “malty beers vs. hoppy beers.” I find that people can often describe the flavors they taste, but aren’t necessarily able to attribute those tastes to one or the other source ingredient. As malt and hops form the base of the beer flavor triangle (yeast being the third point), it seems to me that some attempt at clarification would be useful. We should begin with a basic description of what each of these ingredients actually is.
Malt – Malted cereal grains are the meat and potatoes of beer. They provide the sugars that are fermented by the yeast to create alcohol and CO2. They are the primary source of beer color and contribute significantly to flavor and mouthfeel. The most common of the malted grains is barley malt. Others include wheat, rye, and oats. In addition to the malted grains, some unmalted cereal grains are used in brewing including corn, rice, wheat, rye, oats, and sorghum. Malting is a process of controlled sprouting and kilning of the grains. The sprouting activates enzymes within the grain that begin to break down the hard, starchy insides into simpler carbohydrates, making them accessible to the brewer. Kilning gives the grains differing degrees of color and flavor. There are four categories of brewing malt. Base malts receive the least kilning. They are the lightest malts and make up the bulk of any beer recipe. Crystal or caramel malts are made by allowing enzymes in the grain to convert complex carbohydrates into simple sugars before kilning. Kilning then caramelizes the sugars in the grain. Crystal malts range in color from light to dark with correspondingly intense flavors. Toasted or kilned malts are dry-kilned to a range of colors and flavors. Roasted Malts are kilned at the highest temperatures until they are very dark brown or even black.
Hops – Hops are the spice of beer. They provide bitterness to balance the sweetness of the malt, as well as flavors and aromas ranging from citrus and pine to earthy and spicy. Hops are the cone-like flower of a rapidly growing vine (a bine actually) in the cannabis family. Waxy yellow lupulin glands hidden within the leaves of the flower contain the acids and essential oils that give hops their character. Bitterness comes from alpha acids that must be chemically altered through boiling in order to be utilized. Hop flavors and aromas come from essential oils that are easily dissolved into hot wort, but are also highly volatile. Flavor and aroma hops must be added late in the boil or these properties will be lost with the steam. Hops more than any other brewing ingredient are subject to the phenomenon of terroir, as different growing regions produce hops with different flavor and aroma characteristics. The chief hop growing regions are the Northwestern US, Southern England, Germany, Czech Republic, and China.
Summary - So what is the flavor of malt? To begin with, it is helpful to repeat that malt is the source of fermentable sugars in beer. But not all malt sugars are fermentable, some are left behind. Thus any sweetness perceived in beer is the product of the malt. It is also helpful to remember that malt is grain. Think of other products that are made with grain, like bread, crackers, pasta, or polenta. The grainy flavors found in those foods are also found in beer and come from the malt.
Beyond these basic flavors, each type of malt brings its own particular set of flavors. Base malts are logically the most basic and give beer the most basic and grain-like flavors. Common descriptors would include grainy, corn, bready, saltine cracker, and husky. The crystal or caramel malts bring a range of caramelized sugar flavors. Common descriptors for these flavors include caramel, toffee, brown sugar, molasses, and burnt sugar. The darkest of these malts can impart rich dark fruit flavors like plum and prune. When maltsters toast malt the same chemical reactions occur as when you toast bread. The flavors of the toasted malts are correspondingly similar to those of toasted bread and include toast, biscuit, nutty, graham cracker and bread crust. The roasted malts are the darkest of the brewing grains and are responsible for the flavors associated with stouts and porters. They are kilned nearly to the point of becoming charred and have strong roasty and char flavors. Descriptors for these grains include roasted, burnt, smoky, chocolate, and coffee. The roasted grains also give beer bitterness like that found in a cup of espresso.
Aside from the espresso-like, roasted grain bitterness mentioned above, bitterness in beer comes from hops. For people who say they don’t like beer, hop bitterness is the most commonly identified reason. The level of bitterness depends on the alpha acid content of the hops, the amount of hops used, and the length of time the hops were boiled. Bitterness can range from very light, as in Scottish ales and German wheat beers, to aggressive as in American double IPAs.
The hop flowers added to beer contain a large amount of leafy vegetative matter. The flavors associated with hops tend to be correspondingly plant-like. The particular flavors of hops vary with variety and growing region. Hop flavors and aromas tend to fall into one of seven broad categories, Floral, fruity, citrus, herbal, earthy, piney and spicy. More specific descriptors include perfume, rose-like, geranium, current, berry, grapefruit, orange, minty, grassy, woody, resinous, spruce, licorice and pepper.
One great way to help yourself better identify the flavor contributions of malt and hops is to smell and taste the raw ingredients. If you live near a homebrew store or brewery, stop in and taste some grains. The flavors released as you chew are the same ones that will show up in beer. While I wouldn’t recommend chewing on raw hops, you can smell them. Rubbing a hop flower between your fingers releases the essential oils. What you smell is what you get. Some malt-forward beer styles to try are Scottish ale, doppelbock, Vienna lager, and English barleywine. Some hop-forward styles are pilsner, American pale ale, India pale ale, and Double IPA.