Let’s start at the beginning. All beers share 4 ingredients: Hops, malt, water and yeast. With many specific types of each of these, and a crazy number of “after market additives,” conditioning, barrel aging, yada, yada, there are so many outcomes from the brewing process – hence the dizzying number of styles and sub styles available.
But I digress.
Back to square 1, what are these things?
These grains are the source of sugar in the brewing process. Sugar + yeast = Alcohol! Many different types of grains can be used in the brewing process, but the most common type is barley malt, or “malt.” These malts can be roasted to make them darker in color and “roastier” in flavor. This is how darker beers get their color, darker malts. So this answers the question as to what a malt is and what it does, but what does a “malty” beer taste like?
A “malty” beer is one that is traditionally a bit sweeter (remember, malt is the source of sugar for alcohol production), this is where we get caramel notes, toffee, molasses, dark fruit and roasty flavors like chocolate and coffee. Malts also provide to a beer is that taste of grain, bread or oats – malt is a grain after all!
Hops are a flower that is added to a beer to provide flavor and spiciness to balance things out. Like most edible plants, a certain portion of a hop’s flavor is a result of the region in which they are grown. This flavor comes from the essential oils that incorporate into the hot liquid (or wort) during the brewing process. Herein lies the secret of the difference between a 30, 60 and 90 minute IPA – it’s simply how long the hops are in the wort before being strained out! Longer = increased bitterness from the increased time for the essential oils to be pulled out. (For you Founders fans, the “All-Day IPA,” however, does not spend all day over the hops… it’s “sessionable” – with an ABV <5.0% – so you could drink it all day long )
A “hoppy” beer, not sure how to put this eloquently, smells a bit like marijuana. Hops, from a botanical standpoint, are indeed a member of the cannabis family. The flavors on this end of the spectrum are often described using plant-based adjectives floral, citrusy, or grassy – this makes sense that hops are a flower.
Keep in mind, however, that this is a spectrum. All beers have both malts and hops, what you taste depends on the balance between the two. Start with a taste of an oatmeal stout (malty) and one of an IPA (hoppy) to experience both extremes side-by-side. Just like the spectrum of black to white has is a lot of grey in the in-betweens, the journey from malty to hoppy has some really interesting stops along the way and it’s up to you to keep tasting until you find your comfort zone.