Meanwhile, in the marketing minds of the continent’s craft breweries, it’s still Puerto Vallarta in late July. "Another kiwi lychee lager, sir? How about a pomegranate lavender sour? Betcha light can’t escape this key lime cheesecake IPA, eh? MORE VANILLA?"
The problem for this particular grumpy bastard is, I’m long done with pale for this year. As soon as the equinox tips the daily balance toward darkness, my craving grows for only one ingredient in my beer: malt. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in longing for the warming, comforting flavours specialty malts provide, be they breadcrust, hazelnut and brown sugar, or chocolate, coffee and molasses. But for weeks now I’ve been scouring the beer shelves and been left feeling underwhelmed and a little depressed. The overwhelming majority of what’s available is still pale and probably fruity. Breweries, whither your stouts? Your porters? Your brown ales, dubbels, quads and wee heavies?
Let me qualify this by saying there’s a lot of excellent pale lager being produced these days — and that’s a great thing. For me, there are fewer things more refreshing after a hot and sweaty arse-crack day at the work-from-home typeface than a sharply bitter pilsner. But as it gets colder, I’m looking for more malt in my lager, too. Gimme a marzen. Or a dunkel. And all of your doppelbock. You stock an eisbock? I’ll take a flat.
Breweries, whither your stouts? Your porters? Your brown ales, dubbels, quads and wee heavies?
But, at least in my part of the world, the shelves were bereft of marzen this year. A couple of breweries half-heartedly announced tasting room-only releases. Sadly, there’s this thing called COVID-19 that’s kinda curtailed a lot of my desire to go brewery-tripping. As for a lack of stronger bocks, I understand. Those are expensive beers. They’re tricky to master, expensive to make, and take up a lot of conditioning tank space in the limited real estate of Average Independent Brewing Co. But come on, Brad Brewer, you can’t rustle up a hearty dry stout? I’ll even let you put oatmeal in it. A lighter-bodied porter is a delicious, comforting, yet refreshing post-work beer at this time of year. Sure, you can add a little coffee to the recipe. Seems you can’t make a beer without adjuncts these da--"GET THOSE VANILLA BEANS OUT OF HERE."
I don’t know when the magic of maltiness got lost. Certainly, it’s become an afterthought amid the craze for hazebomb IPAs, “crispi boi” lagers and ever more horrific-sounding sours. Maybe it’s the case that malt was only ever tolerated in North American beer circles, and is only ever deemed useful in excessive amounts — in that very North American way — in styles like imperial stout. It figures, because the craft beer revival on this continent was built around the American hop and its vehicles, the pale ale and IPA. And it figures, also, because the act of becoming obsessively devoted to a seasoning is a distinctly North American trait.
Allow me to roll out the analogy projector and explain.
Beer is, essentially, soup (stick with me here, really). There’s the base of malted barley and water, which is like the soup’s broth or stock – it’s the body of the beer – it provides depth and richness and layers of flavour. Hops, meanwhile, are the seasoning, the herbs and spices. They offer more immediate character and a wide range of flavours (as well as bitterness to balance the sweet malt). And yeast is… uh, the magic ingredient? Love, or something? I dunno, I hadn’t really thought that part through.
The point is, North Americans love their seasonings. Hops are beer’s equivalent of hot sauce. Think about it. Look at all the varieties you get these days! There’s a bottle of tastebud-ravaging gloop on pretty much every restaurant table. And many diners reach for it instinctively, like Brits of a certain generation still do with salt (because growing up on rations in postwar Blighty exposed them to some shocking excuses for vittles). But, the problem with dousing everything with one dominating flavour — be that ghost pepper, sodium chloride, or whatever the hop du jour is — is that you lose all subtlety. Anything swathed in hot sauce is going to taste of hot sauce (though, to be fair, it’s the one thing that makes chicken wings remotely edible).
Ever over-salted a homemade sauce? Yeah. Similarly, if you build a hop-saturated beer on top of a wafer-thin biscuit malt base, all you have is brightness. No shade. No depth. No hearty, comforting warmth of rich malt that envelops you like a hug. Which, I’m sure you agree, we could all use in these godawful times.
Sorry, breweries, but Puerto Vallarta is going to have to wait till the days get longer and Pfizer fills me up with sweet, sweet vaccine. In the meantime, let’s have more warming malt in our lives so we can stick it to that creepy bastard Old Man Winter.Grant Arlington also wrote Beer History: The Third Coming of India Pale Ale which was featured this summer in Resistor Mag.