I was just reading the new issue of Zymurgy magazine and there is an article on single malt beers. I love it. A single malt beer is one where the grain bill is made up of only one type of malt. Very cool but surprisingly uncommon in homebrewing.
Wait… I suppose I should mention that malted barley is a main component in the production of beer. Malted, meaning to wet a grain and allow it to germinate briefly to activate certain enzymes and then quickly dry it with varying amounts of heat. Barley, meaning a cereal grain that your Grandma probably put in soup. The varying amounts of heat are pretty important to the concept here though as some malted barleys are dried with very little heat and sold that way. Others are dried with more heat or are specifically toasted. In either case they gain more color and are caramelized to a specific level and are added to beer in varying amounts to achieve a certain flavor and aroma profile. In the simplest sense this works out to the darker the grain, the darker the beer. OK, that is pretty much the primer that I am going to use here.
I am sure that a few of you brewers out there have taken the time to brew simpler beers that highlight the character of a specific malt. A few years ago, I built a beer that highlighted Special B, which is a really delicious grain that has a pretty bold character. Yum. It is pretty common to do this to highlight a malt or a hop or in some cases for testing different yeast strains. I guess what I am saying is that I (used to) consider this simply a standard diagnostic procedure.
That is, until recently anyway. I have been brewing all-grain for a few seasons now and started out like everyone seems to: making recipes with grain bills that are eight pages long. It always seemed like a good idea to throw in a quarter ounce of Biscuit Malt to adjust for balance or 4 grains of smoked malt to bring a porter to a more traditional flavor profile… Blech… Look, I suppose that there is someone out there that can pick up the addition of a half-cup of 90 Lovibond caramel malt and 45 microliters of molasses in an imperial stout with a 15 pound grain bill. If that is you, congratulations! It must be awesome to be the product of a frightening three-way between Brillat-Savarin, Chairman Kaga and a bloodhound. Unfortunately, I am not as refined as you. My inability to really discern each individual nuance led me to question the necessity of adding so many specialty malts to a recipe as I had been.
I also began searching around to find out how recipes were formulated at a professional level. I found that while there is some of the recipe loading like I described, most commercial brewers use a simpler methodology for designing their products. It seemed to make sense to me and lately I have been breaking down my recipes into 3-4 ingredients and using the simplicity to making my brewing technique better. It is really hard to hide mistakes in recipes like this. If you have 45 specialty grains, you give yourself excuses, I suppose.
This has led to an interesting evolution in my tasting too. Instead of asking “What else can I add?” I find myself paying more attention to what it actually tastes like. The simplicity of a beer made well with just a base of two-row malt and a bit of something else for color and flavor is pretty rad. These type of things are where other additions can really stand out too. An addition of chocolate malt or a healthy dose of a dark grain changes the whole game. Cool.
Anyway, I am just thinking out loud a bit and am going to try some single malt beers just to see what I can see. The article in the magazine talked a lot about how different versions of the same malt can have a lot of difference in character. I think that would be interesting to test out and I really love Marris Otter.
I am going to paraphrase Occam and his Razor. The simplest grain bill is probably the tastiest.