It's all about the hops ........ isn't it?
It’s all about the hops isn’t it?
With the output from some brewers you might think the answer is yes, and indeed hops add a whole load of freshness and flavours that you don’t get for other sources. You knew this was coming…. but there’s a great deal of complexity to a beer that comes from the grains used to obtain the fermentable sugar, the brewing process and the yeasts too.
Beers can be just a carrier for the hop tastes, neutral grains, neutral yeasts really do let the hop characters shine through. So even if you want the hops to be the star of the show, you need a stage to put the actors on and a bunch of technicians, props, costumes, and backstage crew to support them, otherwise it’s all a bit of a non-spectacle.
The alcohol itself can bolster flavour. Recently a very large commercial beer dropped it’s alcohol percentage, and many regular drinkers of the brand complained it had lost all its taste, some might argue it didn’t have any in the first place, but it serves to illustrate the part the strong stuff plays in a drinking experience.
The malted grains used in creating the sugar for the yeast to work on alter the beer immensely, no matter what the beer, the flavours from the grain will be there to a greater or lesser extent. The flavours range from honey to biscuity through chocolate and coffee and a whole range of tastes in between.
Many Belgian beers are kind of fruity, with a hint of clove or ripe banana, you wouldn’t want this in a traditional English ale, but it works for the style, and a good number are brewed with very similar hop pallet to many lagers. What makes these complex flavours, other than some subtleties in grain comes in part from the fermenting temperature (quite warm) and from the yeast, Belgian Abbey Yeasts give this wonderfully rich fruity spicy note from the esters it produces during fermentation.
The latest yeast to hit the craft scene, and certainly a favourite of mine, is a Norwegian Farmhouse Yeast called Kveik (pronounced K-Vike). Traditional farmhouse yeasts from the low countries have a real funk, almost musty, taste to the finished beers. Kviek doesn’t but it does produce a little sharpness (not quite sourness) to the beer, it’s delicious and refreshing and has a number of plusses for the brewer. It ferments like a rocket, a normal for day fermentation can be done in as little as two, it tolerates an enormous range of temperatures, meaning you don’t have to control the fermentation process quite as hard, and it can produce some lovely estery (like the Belgian beers) notes, it has a high degree of attenuation (it turns more of the sugar to alcohol) and finally it has a high flocculation (it clumps together) and drops out brighter quicker. You can drink the beers exceedingly fresh and young, or it will mature nicely softening and mellowing as it ages. It doesn’t work for all beer styles but it’s very trendy and worth a try if you’ve not had a beer produced with it. My next experiment at home will be a high alc Belgian style made with this yeast, sort of a Kveik Kwak, should be interesting.