Saturday, July 14, 2007

Malt varieties and terroir

Stan Hieronymous has written a couple of really interesting blog postings that I find particularly interesting. He draws lines between what the wine industry call terroir and the fact that the malts used by breweries have individual characteristics.

There is something to be said about the characteristics of a beer and what kinds of ingredients were used and where they were grown. The malt characteristics both depend on where it was grown and what malt variety it is. For beer's sake, at least for now, I think it is most to be said about the distinctions between malt varieties than than in which field it was grown. It is just too much of an unexplored field for anybody to say anything about terroir. The distinctions between malt varieties are much greater than between the same variety being grown in different locations.

The individualities in flavour of malt varieties is something that has not been considered by breweries and their marketing departments as something of interest. Great flavour has not been the primary reason for growing a malt variety -- economy has. A combination of how much barley could be produced per acre, the brewing efficiency, and the consistency of the malts have been the primary drivers.

Few people have thought that there have been any relationship between what malt varieties have been used to brew a beer and what the actual end result was. There are actually a lot of families of barley out there, most of them almost distinct and others grown on a very small scale. Large breweries have been mostly concerned about consistency and efficiency -- all for economic reasons. This has led to a reduced diversity of mass-produced malt varieties grown on a larger scale.

Fortunately, with the craft brewing revival, there is a new interest in traditional barley varieties. Traditional barley varieties like Maris Otter and Golden Promise are now being considered to be malt varieties that add an extra dimension to a beer.

I think that there is a lot of more things that is to be said about this subject.

Read what Stan said here:

Not all barleys are born equal
Malt (and barley) matters: Part II


Travis said...

Interesting stuff. I would say that in most cases (at least in my limited experience) the normal person's tongue cannot even differentiate between European Pale Malt and domestic pale malt.

It's not to say that there is not a difference; in fact I would go so far as to say (based on my experience growing up on a dairy farm) no 2 grain batch's have ever been and will ever be exactly alike.(based on variances in water, temperature, air, seed,'s practically impossible to replicate everything in a natural surrounding)

However, with that said, like wine and the true wine experts, beer neuances at that level are going to be left to the experts. I am just know starting to really taste the differences in hop varieties.

To be able to pick up on some regional characteristics of a domestic pale malt grown in Oregon versus a pale malt grown in New York (2 very similar, but different areas) would have to be someone with a VERY accurately trained taste. I guess that would be unless there were something unnatural or strange that would be reflected in the grain in on regional grain over the other.

It's good stuff though and I love some sound food for thought on "beer theory".

grove said...

Hi travis,

I very much agree with you. The nuances between most barley varieties are *very* subtle. For a taster to notice the differences the beer will have to be a simple one without hop complexity and specialty malts.

Differences in techniques of malting can enhance some of the characteristics of the malt though, but still the variations are fairly small. I'm sure more research can be made by the maltsters to further enhance the flavour profiles.

Hops are a much more obvious candidate for looking into the effects of terroir, as the differences in character are much more diverse. The terroir part of this is often (or always?) seen when comparing the same hop being produced in Europe vs. North America (or any other continents). The effects of terroir are quite obvious in this case, much to the same degree as when growing a grape on different continents.

Yes, this is definitely food for thought towards a "beer theory". And it is definitely fascinating stuff -- to me at least. :)

Adam said...

Living here in America where we have so many styles available creates an interesting situation.

How many people will really get so used to a brew that they notice "a bad year" that was caused by the terroir?

I guess from a brewers perspective it would be more important. I the brewer want to make sure that I remain as consistent with my ingredients as possible if I want to maintain the distinct taste of my brand of beer.

Interesting stuff. Especially considering malt and hops crops will be negatively affected over the next couple of years for various reasons. Will we see breweries shifting suppliers? How will that affect the taste of beer? Will anybody notice?