Crystal malts in IPA: the wisdom of Mitch Steele

In my recent review of Stone Enjoy By 12.21.12 IPA, I mentioned that I enjoyed it a lot, but was surprised that it had “less melanoidin flavor than I usually want from an IPA.”

Here’s an interesting postscript and mea culpa. I just listened to a Basic Brewing Radio podcast released December 13, in which Mitch Steele, head brewer at Stone Brewing Company and author of a new book IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale (which I received for Christmas, and it looks like a great read) advocated:

minimizing use of crystal malts in IPA, [which] adds a level of sweetness and malt intensity that [can] kind of mask the hop character … as the beer ages, the crystal malt immediately turns into that dried raisin, fruit character which really knocks the hop character down.

He recommends rye, wheat, or even light Munich malts as a substitute, and says he prefers these malts to crystal in his own IPA recipes. He said that Stone doesn’t often use rye particularly in their beers due to lautering concerns with their brewhouse equipment, but he would like to.

I was always under the impression that crystal was more or less a necessity in IPA, to add exactly the kind of residual sweetness that Steele cautions against. Far be it from me to disagree with him, because he literally wrote the book on IPA, and Stone’s selection of great IPAs speaks for itself. I’ve deduced that Mr. Steele practices what he preaches, and the grain bill for Enjoy By IPA – a beer he had significant creative control over as head brewer – contained little, if any, crystal malt.

It was that sweetness of crystal malt that I was expecting to find in Enjoy By IPA and missing (well, maybe not “missing”, because the beer was spectacular). I incorrectly identified it as a lack of melanoidin flavor, when it was actually a lack of caramel flavor. Caramel flavors come from using stewed, sugary crystal malts (also known as caramel malts; surprise, surprise) in beer. Melanoidins, on the other hand, are the toasty flavors associated with German beers that one gets from decoction mashing and boiling malts such as Vienna and Munich.

Assuming Enjoy By IPA had Munich in its grain bill and not crystal – as per Steele’s own advice – what I was probably tasting was melanoidin. Or at least a subtle, barely detectable background of melanoidin that allowed the hops to take center stage; as opposed to caramel flavors competing with hops for the spotlight in the name of balancing bitter and sweet.

Maybe that’s exactly what Mitch Steele realized, leading him to his decree. If so, I like his style; and I’m going to learn from it. My last IPA had 1 pound of crystal malts compared to 1.5 pounds of Munich, a 2:3 ratio. How much better would the hops taste if I changed that 8 oz of crystal and 2 pounds of Munich (1:4)? Or only 4 oz of crystal (1:8)?

The real tragedy is that December 21 has come and gone, and I won’t be able to find Enjoy By 12.21.12 IPA again. If I do, it’ll be past date. It seems kind of heretical to drink a beer called “Enjoy By 12.21.12” after the date on the label, doesn’t it?

This will be my last post of the year. Happy new year from the Zyme Lord, and I’ll see you in 2013.

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About Shawn M

Writer, podcaster, blogger, and homebrewer in Austin, Texas.

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