All-malt Brewing. A Critic’s Rationale.

In many posts and comments elsewhere, I have upheld my preference for all-malt beers. In practical terms this means barley malt although it is true other grains can be malted, such as wheat, which figures in German wheat beer.

Brewers’ use of other materials to supplement malt is motivated by many factors, of which cost is one and probably the most important one, as a general rule, by my study of brewing history. Other reasons cited to use non-malt sources of starch or ready sugar include to promote the stability and clarity of beer, to adjust colour, add flavour, save space in the brewery, and assist production of high-alcohol beer.

I have never found a better explanation of the use of adjuncts and sugars in beer than Julius E. Thausing’s, in his 1882 text on malting and brewing. Thausing was a professor of brewing in Vienna. The book was translated for the U.K. and American markets, and “thoroughly” edited for this purpose by two American scientists including highly regarded Anton Schwarz. See pp. 430 et seq.

Similar statements on the primacy of cost can be found periodically in technological literature to the present day.

I would point out Thausing and the editors firmly supported the use of adjunct, explaining how, in their view, it could be used without impacting quality.

The Briton Michael Jackson (1942-2007), not a beer scientist or cost accountant but a beer critic, once made the case for all-malt beer, based that is on palate. He wrote at a time when there were few all-malt beers outside Germany particularly in the English-speaking world.

In his 1982 The Pocket Guide to Beer, he wrote:

Beers that lean heavily on lesser grains and sugars manifest in their palate a lack of confidence … The true malt palate can best be experienced in the full-bodied beers of Bavaria. The malt that makes beer, like the grape that makes wines, is inherently sweet, but in each case the degree to which this characteristic is allowed to endure is a matter of the preference of the producer…

He then explains that all-malt beers in the U.S., meaning clearly the all-malt, “super-premium” beers fielded by pre-craft brewers in the 1970s and ’80s, “tend to restrain their potential”. This referred mainly, as did his words “allowed to endure”, to how far the beer was fermented out before packaging and sale. For, no matter what materials beer is made from, if the fermentable sugars are completely consumed by the yeast, the beer will have less richness of taste and body than if the fermentation was stopped sooner.

But then he adds:

Even then, the all-malt character [of the American beers] is evident in their remarkable firmness and cleanness of palate.

He was saying, he preferred even a well-attenuated all-malt beer to one that relied, certainly, “heavily” on adjunct grains or sugar. Of course, much depends here, as Thausing in effect held, on that word “heavily”.

I have occasionally had excellent craft adjunct beer, beer that probably used 20% or less adjunct and wasn’t over-fermented. The Belgians, too, are often careful to use adjunct in a way not to adversely affect the palate. One can argue this too of many British beers that used sugar or maize in proportions less than North Americans often used for their mass-market beers.

In a U.K. text on industrial microbiology written about 20 years ago, it is stated that “British beer” typically uses 75% malt, 25% cereal adjuncts or sugar. We can take this as some evidence of the “norm” in British brewing, at least for top-fermentation products, before British beer was impacted by craft developments.

Of course, Jackson was well aware of the Belgian and his own tradition. In choosing to highlight how malt best expressed itself in beer, he chose German all-malt beer as his example. (His most complimentary reference to British beer in the same section of the book is its distinctive hop character).

Jackson’s words, repeated elsewhere in different forms, considerably influenced early American craft brewing, which made all-malt beers that did not “restrain their potential”. And to a large extent this is still true, the core of craft brewing today is assertive, all-malt beer. A little wheat may be added, or lactose, or rye or oats, sometimes. But in the main modern craft brewing still relies on full-malt-character ales and lagers.*

This signature, paired with the distinctive flavour of American hops used in quantity, caught the attention of the British, and other Europeans. They were inspired to make beers of similar character (some revivalists already had), although all-malt, well-hopped beers were appreciated earlier in their own brewing history.

American craft showed that all-malt beer could be crystal clear, could make fine barley wine and other strong beer, as once it did in the U.K., and most important had a vibrant malt palate that could be equated in impact to good German beer.

40 years of tasting beer have convinced me of the truth of Jackson’s words.

I’ll return to the all-malt question in the context of National Breweries Limited in Montreal, which used all-barley malt until its demise in 1952. While it would be satisfying to say the company had a Jacksonian view of all-malt, the truth is more nuanced. More soon.

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*This is not to say there aren’t all-malt craft beers that taste too lean from a low final fermentation gravity. In fact there seem to be more of these than in the past, an attempt no doubt to appease the drinker with mass market inclinations. This palate, in our view, has some justification, as Jackson noted in the above. Also, some pale ales in the past had very low FGs due to a prolonged re-fermentation in the bottle or cask. But such beers are not likely the best ambassadors of craft, because they end often as simulacrums of mass market beers.