Beer Interpretation is an irregular series of posts where I try to decipher the sometimes strange and always wonderful world of beer jargon, phrases and catch cries by drilling into the basics and interpreting the lingo. Basically I’m going to try and translate the nerdy beer stuff.
Seeing as the first two posts were focused on hops it seemed logical to go to another ingredient of beer – malt. But what do people mean when they describe a beer as “malty”?
Much like its “hoppy” counterpart, “malty” can mean any number of different things because as an ingredient “malt” can vary from a light pilsner malt to a heavily roasted malt and all in between, each giving off very different flavours. Malts can provide flavours like honey, caramel, biscuit and nutty and bolder flavours like coffee, chocolate, roast and smoke and even borderline meaty characters. How does malt do all that? Well, perhaps this is a good time to talk about what malt exactly is.
What is this magical thing called Malt?
Malt refers to grain that has been malted and more often than not the grain is barley. The barley is harvested and then steeped in water to start the germination process which is then halted by the barley being dried and kilned. The degree to which the barley is kilned determines what sort of malt you end up with.
Bridge Road Brewers do an awesome job of explaining the brewing process, including a breakdown of malt and the process, on their website.
What does Malt do for Beer?
So, so much. Without malt there’s no sugar and if there’s no sugar then the yeast can’t eat it and that means there’s no alcohol being produced. In short, without malt there’s nothing even resembling beer, just a watery bitter liquid.
Of the four ingredients needed for beer – those being malt, water, hops and yeast – malt is often referred to as the backbone of the beer, the foundation for everything else.
Besides providing the sugars that the yeast consume in order to produce alcohol, malt also contributes to the colour, aroma and flavour of a beer.
Yet whilst malt contributes to a lot of what a beer is in the end, when a beer is described as “malty” it is usually about the flavour having significant malt influence.
So, as a descriptor “malty” could mean lashings of coffee and chocolate like you’d find in a stout from roasted malt or perhaps it could refer to a melody of caramel and dark fruits like you’d get in a strong ale. Going bigger, malty could also describe the bold richness of molasses of a Barley Wine or the oddly tantalising smokey, meaty, sweet malt flavours that can be found in a German Rauchbier.
In short, “malty” is about as useful as saying a fruit salad tastes “fruity”.*
*and I say this knowing I have often used “malty” as a descriptor!
Go Buy Some Beer …
Feral Karma Citra
An instance of malty meets hoppy in this year round brew from Feral Brewing, it’s an India Black Ale which is a fancy way of saying it’s a love child of an IPA (the hoppy bit) and a dark beer (that’d be the malty bit).
What’s so malty? Well, the colour for one but mainly it’s the chocolate and roasty flavours that are just as prominent as the hops.
4 Pines ESB
There aren’t heaps of Australian brewed ESBs, the style doesn’t have the almost fanatic-like following that IPAs and Pale Ales have, but none the less they can be an absolutely cracking beer and this is one of my favourites.
What’s so malty? It’s the toffee, red fruit and biscuity malt presence in this beer that makes it so gorgeous.
Russian Imperial Stouts aren’t just a show case for dark malts, they’re the main act, the big gig.
What’s so malty? Almost all of it; there’s a few different malts at play here to provide the roasty, liquorice, coffee and chocolate mash up that’s happening here.
A traditional German beer using Beechwood smoked malts, a speciality of Bamberg. A beer style not for everyone but well worth trying at least once if not a few times.
What’s so malty? The smokey malts of course! But it’s not like licking an ashtray, it’s smokey but also borderline bacon-like with hints of toast and sweetness from the malts too.