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
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
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
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
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.