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February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes



November, 2005

Monsters of Malt

I was at the Church Brew Works last Saturday, and bantered a bit with head brewer Bryan Pearson. Brian's a great guy -- quick with a smile, open, well-spoken -- and quite a brewer as well: his beers have seven GABF medals to their credit, with four of those for the Mad Brewer Maibock I was sipping as we spoke. "I'm making a double IPA," he told me. 

"You? You're kidding, right?" I jabbed.

"No!" he said, quirking his eyebrows in what looked like honest concern, as if I were insulting him. Which I was not. 

"Oh, I believe the Double part," I assured him. "It's the IPA part I find hard to swallow. I figure you'd blow half your yearly hop budget with a beer like that." And with that, he got the joke and we both grinned and chuckled. Bryan's not any kind of hophead when it comes to the beers he brews, preferring to craft beers that express their character through the medium of the malt; the Mad Brewer Maibock, for instance, or the Pious Monk Dunkel.  

That got me thinking about the plight of the brewer or beer drinker who just doesn't thrill to the reek of the hop-bombed ale. Bryan makes excellent beers, and I've been lucky enough to sample a small number of them. Last year's Bocks Au Chocolat was a dusty-dry cocoa bock, and the big, fat, quinoa-packed Turbo Lama was a fruity, juicy, whack in the back of the head. The Maibock and the Dunkel are both multi-award-winners, and he's got some big beers -- barleywine, imperial stout -- that will walk up and down your spine. 

But the poor guy don't get no respect! I constantly hear geeks run down the beers at the Church. "Drinkable, but not great." "Utterly flavorless." "Not much in the flavor category." "Well-made but uninspired." 

I have to believe it's because Bryan's just not impressed with over-hopping. Folks, let's stop kidding ourselves. I hear all this blather about how bold it is to shove the hopping rate up beyond what was once considered extreme. It's not. In fact, it's dull. How much brewing skill does it take to throw more hops in the kettle? Oh, granted, it does take skill and knowledge to select the hops, and run the formulation, but come on. How much of it is just throwing in another pound of hops? 

But to be fair, is it any less simple, any less easy, any less innovative, to add some more malt to a recipe? That would make a convenient straw man argument for the hopheads, because on the surface, it looks like an easy call: more malt? What's the big difference between a 10P dunkel and a 12P dunkel, and how frickin' innovative is it to throw in another sack of malt?

Lots of difference, honey, and I'm afraid it gets into that divisive issue of West vs. East. See, the West's 'innovation' consists of tossing hops -- lots of hops -- into styles that weren't real hoppy before: mild, stout, pale ale, IPA -- oh, yeah, pale ale and IPA, you know what I mean, these styles are lip-burners in the West. These are the same kind of guys who want to pour Dave's Insanity Sauce all over every plate of food they get, and you ain't a man!!!! if you don't care for that.

Well, sorry. Just like I want to taste my food, and not the endorphin rush of Screaming Sphincter sauce, I'd like to taste beer, which is made with malt and yeast, not just hops. Bejayzus, folks, what's the point in just sucking on hops? Throw a buttload of hops in any beer and it damned near tastes like any other beer!

A friend of mine was out in Yakima earlier this year, and heard some west coast brewers talking about double IPAs and barleywine. "Barleywine is dead," they said. From their perspective, it's probably true. "Barleywine" to these guys is typified by Bigfoot: big beer, stuffed with hops, which pretty much covers the double IPA "style." And if that isn't big enough, rest assured that some genius has already come up with a triple IPA that is. Barleywine is dead, they say.

Long live Barleywine! That's what I say. For love of beer, guys, I can think of barleywines right off the top that don't fit such a tiny, crippled perspective: Fuller's Vintage Ale, Lee's Harvest Ale, Young's Old Nick, Weyerbacher's Blithering Idiot, Dogfish Head Immort Ale, and hey, look at this, the West Coast's own Anchor Old Foghorn. What, you can't have a beer over 6% without thumping its butt full of hops? Who be the weenie now? Can't handle your malt, boys? Scared of the power? Overdone by the complexity? Wait, here's a thought: what about a beer that balances the hops and malt? Whooooaaa!!!!!

There are malt-balanced beers that the hopheads should just leave alone. Dunkel. Mild. Festbier. Export. Wee Heavy. Dry Stout. Bocks. I'd even argue Barleywine, now that the hopheads have double IPAs to play with. These are beers that cannot have hops added to them. If you do, then they are no longer that which they were. They are something new, and should be named something new. 

Does the Church beer list tend to come down heavy on the malt side? Bet your ass it does, with bocks and dunkels and stouts and such. I don't see that as a problem. After all, Rogue does the same thing with hops, and geeks roar with clenched-fist approval. Why not a bit of brewery-for-brewery balance? Why not a bit of beer-for-beer balance? 

I know the malt-lovers are out there. I know there are people out there who just don't care for hoppy beers, but will welcome the burliest bock and the boldest Belgian with open arms. Yet I've talked to geeks who think people who don't get hops don't get beer. How blind can you be?

This is probably my fifth or sixth direct rant about hopheads. I apologize, but only a little, and only because it might be boring. But there's just so much more to the whole beer palate than the variety of flavors available from hops, and the enthusiasts, the people who should be reaching out to the future craft beer drinkers, largely aren't getting it. They're impassioned about the one flavor/aroma component of beer that is least likely to entrance newcomers: bitterness. Their passion is beautiful, but so narrow. Love beer, not just hops.

Bryan Pearson gets it. And plenty of Pittsburghers get it. They drink his malty beers at the Church, and the malty lagers across the river at the Penn Brewery, and the handily balanced beers Matt Carroll makes at the Rock Bottom in Homestead. I guess it's just a 'Burgh Thing. Think about it, the next time you're faced with 20 taps and decision time. Make it malt.


Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
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Revised: November 30, 2005