Thousands of pale ales are on tap at any given time on any day of the week in America these days. They might be crystal clear and bright or hazy and thick. Depending on the brewer’s bent, they run the spectrum on ABV, SRM, and IBU. What varies, of course, is the hops that each brewery uses. Chalkboards and printed menus boast varieties, hoping (usually correctly) that words such as Citra, Mosaic, or Lemon Drop will get customers to order a pint.
It’s rare, verging on unheard of, for a brewery to advertise the malt bill on a menu (although it does show up from time to time on labels). But getting the malt bill dialed in before a pale ale gets to the glass can mean the difference between an enjoyable pint and a drain pour.
“At the end of the day, what separates the wheat from the chaff, in terms of quality beer, are the people who can seamlessly use malt while still showcasing hops at full potential and those who can’t,” says Ben Edmunds the founder and brewmaster of Breakside Brewery in Portland, Oregon.
He says there are far too many pale ales, and IPAs for that matter, with a malt character not strong enough to support the hops.
“The underlying assumption is that something that has an assertive malt profile is going to take away from the hops. That’s a fallacy,” he says. “A well-balanced pale ale, even one that is heavy on the aromatics, needs an appropriate malt bill.”
But first you need to think about what kind of pale ale you’re going to make. Even though they are all cut from the same cloth, they all offer something different—from the classic British to the assertive American, the intriguing Belgian, and the newer, thicker New England–style.
“You always want the hops to be relevant,” says Kevin Ashford, the head brewer and creative director at California’s Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. “But you need a malt bill that allows for that.”
He says most of their pale ales are 2-row-driven because they want an appropriate starch to protein ratio (80 percent to 20 percent). He’s found that Metcalfe and Copeland sourced from Canada and Montana are great base malts when it comes to making American pale ales. For British variations, where you want a bit of nutty character in the background, he’ll go for Simpsons Golden Promise or Maris Otter.
At Breakside, the malt bills for the pale ales aren’t much different from the IPAs. They are keen on English base malts, Munich malt, and sometimes Vienna—but not always because sometimes the sweetness of that malt can interfere with the hops. They also tend to stay away from Golden Promise and other underdeveloped heirloom malts in their pale hoppy beers because they often leave behind a husky flavor that accentuates or aggravates the hops character.
Authenticity is important in styles such as Belgian-style pale ale, says Brewery Ommegang’s Brewmaster Phil Leinhart. With those beers, it’s more about the yeast than the hops, a marriage that can be difficult to master given the aromas, bitterness, esters, and phenols that can clash, so the best ones are usually the subtle ones. And if you’re using a Belgian yeast strain, Leinhart says, why not consider using Belgian base malts? But avoid Belgian specialty malts as they usually detract from the style. His brewery, when they make a Belgian pale ale, uses Dingemans Aroma 150 MD.
Hops such as Simcoe and Chinook have a tackiness to them, Breakside’s Edmunds says, and those need a solid malt to help dial that back. That’s why a malt such as Maris Otter works so well, especially with some of the classic American hops—such as Centennial, Amarillo, and even Mosaic—and other dank hops such as Columbus and Nelson Sauvin.
The one malt that Edmunds always keeps in his “tool kit” is Crystal. It’s his go-to malt for combating that tackiness that often vexes brewers.
“You taste an otherwise nice hoppy beer that has some of that tack, and it’s not a bitterness issue; it’s a balance issue. A skosh of light Crystal can go a long way,” he says. But, it’s not a grain that often appears in recipes outside of the Pacific Northwest. He says it’s one reason brewers in his area are regularly lauded for hops-forward beers. “We never abandoned Crystal malt, and the ones who did are doing a disservice to their beers.”
When it comes to Mosaic, the hops that brewers and drinkers can’t seem to get enough of, Figueroa Mountain’s Ashford says he builds a base recipe with a Metcalfe blend and a small amount of Caramalt and then uses some flaked barley.
“It gives us some residual sugar that pulls the beer away a bit from the bitterness of Mosaic,” he says.
Ashford has also learned to add white wheat to recipes that feature more citrus-forward hops. “It’s very white-bread-like, like a French loaf in flavor, and it just draws out a lot of that sharp citrus flavor so that it becomes a little more vibrant in the beer.”
The more tropical forward the hops, the less nuttiness you want, so it’s probably best to avoid the Munich or Maris Otter for those beers. And throughout, when building a recipe, the SRM derived from malt is very important. We’ve come to expect a more vibrant, light copper color from the British-inspired pales or a more golden clear hue in the West Coast offerings. And then, of course, there are the beers that embrace the haze.
New England–style Pale Ales
When it comes to the modern New England–style hoppy beers, the traditional malt bill is a background player.
“It’s wheat and oats in some sort of combination and then 2-row,” says Robert Olson of Bolero Snort Brewery in New Jersey. “With any high-protein malt, you’re going to have cloudiness, even if you centrifuge. The biggest thing is the body, and the malts help give you those creamy, pillowy mouthfeels without a doubt. But no one comes up and asks about our ratios, or what we use malt-wise. All they want to know about is the hops.”
Samuel Richardson, the cofounder and brewmaster at Other Half Brewing Co. in Brooklyn, New York, concurs.
“It’s pretty straightforward. It’s mostly making the malt as unobtrusive as possible,” he says. “The majority of the complaints, if you were to listen to what people are saying, is from people saying they don’t want them to be malty. So it’s more having a malt bill that’s—I don’t want to say flavorless—but one that is in the background and elevates the hops.”
A New Balance
It’s an interesting turn of events in the style. For the longest time, these beers were often praised for “balance,” where it was the complementary relationship between malt and hops. Or the word “backbone” was used to describe beers where hops didn’t completely run away with the recipe. In the newer style, “balance” is between yeast and hops with malt being an afterthought in the same way a Chico or similar ale yeast is with more traditional pale ales.
“So, there is some balance playing out; it’s just not between malt and hops. But it’s okay. We’re craft brewers, and as long as we’re making something that customers are excited about and want and we’re making new styles filled with thoughts and ideas, we realize that people don’t need to get all caught up in what a beer style should be,” Richardson says. “We can understand what a Pilsner is supposed to be, but when people are going to the boundaries, it’s not defined, and it’s not a problem if it’s balanced or not so long as it’s interesting and good.”
And given the rise of a style that seems more than merely a fad, those boundaries will continue to expand, and that could even bring malt back into the conversation. “The whole conversation about these beers is the hops, but if you don’t have the malts, it’s not the same beer. It doesn’t do the same thing,” says Bolero Snort’s Olson. But, he says that things might be turning a corner. With more micro-maltsters coming online along with an expanding consumer base and more people making this style of beer, brewers are looking to stand out. Talking about a grain bill and how it contributes to the style is a way of standing out and differentiating themselves from the pack.
“To me, you want the hops flavor to still be the selling point,” says Edmunds. “Customers don’t need to or don’t care to understand malt balance or bill, or water profiles, or even ABV. They just want the hops and how they are perceived. That’s what moves the beer. And at the marketing level, there’s not a lot of room to romanticize malt, but it shouldn’t be overlooked.”