Understanding the Styles and Terminology in Today’s Crowded Craft Beer Marketplace
Walking into a bar today can be a little unnerving for someone just entering the craft beer scene. So what does a beer drinker who is well versed in light lagers, but not much else, do when they enter one of these craft-centric watering holes? The more you understand about the different styles of beer, and where they fall on the “hop-malt continuum” the easier it will be to find that next perfect pint!
Hoppy vs. Malty
Today, we’ll focus on identifying styles of beer based on how “hoppy” or “malty” they are. “Malt” represents grains processed for brewing. Though barley is the most common brewing grain, wheat, rye, oats, corn and rice are also used. It’s malt that provides much of the flavors, aromas, color, and the sugars for the yeast to ferment the “wort” into beer.
Hops are the spice of beer, and are used to counteract the very sweet liquid wort that is produced from the malt. A beer without hops would be too sweet for most palates, so hop additions are necessary to give the beer some balance. Beers that tend to use just enough hops to balance, but not showcase the hops, are called “malt forward.” Beers that are intended to highlight, showcase and sometimes assault your senses with hop aroma and flavor are known as “hop forward” beers.
Picture a straight line, and think of malt forward beers being on the left side and hop forward beers being on the right side. This is known as the “hop-malt continuum.” Beers will fall somewhere on this line, depending on their characteristics. A beer that would be found right in the middle of this continuum is called a “balanced” beer. Level of balance does not indicate quality of a beer, it simply let’s you know what to expect when consuming a particular beer style.
The hoppy side
American IPA and Imperial IPAs would fall on the far right end of the continuum. These beers are intentionally unbalanced, providing just enough malt behind copious amounts of aromatic, flavorful hops. The intention is to showcase the hops so balance is not the goal – hoppiness is. These beers also have high levels of bitterness, so they finish dry. Examples include Ballast Point Sculpin, Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA and Russian River’s Pliny the Elder.
Pale Ales, American Ambers, California Commons and authentic German and Czech Pilsners are styles that would fall on the hoppy side of the continuum to the right of the balanced midpoint.
The malty side
To the other extreme, rich, malty Scotch Ales, English Strong Ales and Barleywines can be found on the continuum’s left side. These beers are all about the malt, often with just enough hops to support. Other beer styles that would fall on the malty side include: Brown Ales, Imperial Stouts, Belgian Dubbels and Dark Strongs, English Porters and Blonde Ales. Four Peaks Kilt Lifter is a good example of a malt forward beer.
Switzerland (Beers in the middle)
Beers that would appear truly balanced and in the center of the continuum include: Amber Ales, Helles and Dortmunder Lagers, and even some Robust Porters where the bitterness from the malt and higher hopping rates can counteract the rich malts to create balance. Spaten Premium Lager, a Helles, is a fine example of a well balanced beer in the center of the continuum.
Understanding malt versus hops, and the styles that represent these differences, will give you a better chance of ordering a fantastic beer next time you find yourself facing a wall of beer names of which you may not be familiar.