Heading back to Oregon after our trip to Europe, we visit the Brewer on the Bay, Rogue. Not only a brewer but a distiller too, and and in recent years they've combined both facets of the business in the 'John John' series of beers aged in their own barrels. The two Johns in question are brewmaster John Maier and master distiller John Couchot, and their first collaboration was John John Dead Guy Ale. Rogue already makes a Dead Guy whiskey as well as their famous Dead Guy ale, both made from the same wort, so after the whiskey had been aged in barrels as it always is, the empty barrels were filled with Dead Guy ale which was left alone for a couple of months and then bottled. Pretty clever, huh? Since then there have been two more John John beers - John John Juniper (Rogue Juniper Pale Ale aged in Rogue Juniper Gin barrels) and John John Hazelnut (Rogue Hazelnut Brown Ale aged in Rogue Spiced Rum barrels).
But today it's Rogue Santa's Private Reserve that's in the spotlight, and being a red ale and therefore on the malty side (more on that below) that gives us a chance to finish the story we began three days ago of malt and how it plays such a crucial role in the brewing of beer.
The whole point of malting the barley in the first place is to encourage the conversion of grain starch to sugar, because brewers yeast can't eat starch but it can eat sugar. Any bread makers reading this will probably be familiar with the idea of adding a little sugar when you bloom the yeast, to give it a kind of wake up call. Without sugar, yeast can't make alcohol and carbon dioxide, and without alcohol and carbon dioxide there'd be no beer. Oh calamity. So why barley in particular? (Disclaimer: other types of malted grain are available). It's well suited to the process because it has a relatively high starch content, which means more available sugar, and a relatively low protein content, too much of which can make a beer cloudy.
Now the malt has to be kilned (roasted).
Kilning the malt brings out certain flavours depending on temperature and duration, and gives the malt a lighter or darker colour. This is one of the reasons beer is thought of by many as far more interesting than wine because it can range from pale yellow in colour, all the way through rich ambers and browns to the opaque blackness of stout, and with a wide variety of flavours derived from both hops and malt (and other things besides). Malt is usually associated with sweetness in beer but it can also impart bready, biscuity flavours (after all, it is a cereal grain) when pale and lightly kilned, toffee and caramel notes if kilned to a darker colour, and in extreme cases it can give hints of acrid bitterness if the malt is kilned almost to the point of burning. There's even a style of malt called chocolate, and yes, it can impart chocolate flavours to a beer. What's happening here is caramelisation of sugars and the Maillard reaction (and if you don't know what that is you haven't watched enough Alton Brown).
There are enzymes in the grain that are affected by kilning and the brewer has to tailor the beer-making process around some of these, but that's a whole 'nother story and we're giving it a body swerve today because this is where the story of malt ends and the story of brewing beer begins.
So what's the deal, mentioned above, with Santa's Reserve and malt? Well, the red/amber ale style is generally considered to be on the malt-forward side of the beer spectrum with a relatively subtle hop character, but the the brewers at Rogue have said phooey to that and loaded it with hops to give more flavour and bitterness than you'd normally find in a red ale. Does that make it a different style of beer? Would someone please pass me a ten-foot bargepole that I can use to not touch that particular can of worms? Thank you.