18 Mar Know Where Your Beer Parts Come From
The weekend before St. Paddy’s Day Indiana On Tap hosted the first New Castle on Tap Festival at the Arts Pavilion in downtown New Castle. Yes, it was cold, but that didn’t stop over 500 people from coming out in the 8 degree wind chills for some great Indiana beer, wine, and spirits.
There was a lot to like about the festival, from to the food to the Irish music to the Irish step dance, but one particular thing stuck in my mind after getting home and dissecting the event. There was a beer there which pointed out a good lesson for the people of Indiana – know where your beer ingredients are coming from. One, it makes a difference to taste and quality. Two, it helps promote Indiana business. And three, it makes you a more knowledgeable drinker.
The beer in question was the new American pilsner from Creatures of Habit Brewing in Anderson. They called it the Indiana SMaSH, where the capital letters do mean something. SMaSH refers to a beer that is made with a single malt variety and a single type of hop. Normally, beers are brewed with combinations of malts and several different hops – this can give a beer more depth and can help different flavors and bodies meld together.
However, a single malt/single hop beer can highlight each individual ingredient. The hop you taste, whether in its bitterness or its flavor, comes from that particular hop varietal. Likewise, any malt characteristics you taste or feel, it’s because of that particular malt. Of course, the information is moot unless you know which hop it is and which malt it is.
So recognizing the differences between the many hops and the many malts is one thing to learn from this – but perhaps more important, do you know where that malt and hop came from? The Creatures beer was called an Indiana SMaSH, because the hop came from Indiana (Crazy Horse Hops in Knightstown), and the malt came from Indiana (Sugar Creek Malt Co. in Lebanon). It’s truly an Indiana product….. and that matters.
Beer is made from four primary ingredients; water, malt, hops, and yeast. Each of these ingredients brings its own personality to the table, and provides something that no other ingredient in general, or variety of that particular ingredient, can bring. Malts don’t just provide sugar for fermentation, they have elements for body and flavor, just like yeast don’t just produce alcohol, they are responsible for a large number of flavor molecules.
What’s more, the local source of each of the four ingredients makes a difference. It’s called terroir, a big deal in talking about wine, but just as important in making and tasting beer. Terroir refers to the characteristics of a product that come from the particular place it hails from. With grapes, people can often tell the difference between grapes grown on different sides of the same hill. Just think how great a difference being grown in a different part of a country as big as the US might have.
Breweries can brew with their own water if it is amenable, and this makes a very different beer based on the minerals and ions. Yeast can have terroir too. Many breweries have what they call a house strain, a yeast they use often. The source of the house strain can be variable though. Sometimes a brewery has a strain that they like and keep buying or going back to in the freezer. Other times, the house strain is something they have purchased in the past and then propagated themselves. This tends let the yeast drift over time, much like a heirloom variety of tomato. Other times, a brewery could have a yeast or combination of yeasts that they harvested themselves from nature or a microflora that grows in its barrels. This makes each very special and unique.
Terroir in beer is probably best exemplified by malts and hops. The same variety of hop grown in the Pacific Northwest is going to taste very different from one grown in Michigan, and that will be different from the same hop grown even in Indiana. Likewise, a grain may be grown locally, and it will reflect the environment it came from, but there is also the skill and technique used to malt and roast that grain, so the same malt is going to be different based on which maltster worked the grain.
The lesson learned here? An Indiana SMaSH is going to very much reflect Hoosier agriculture, environment, and artistry. Learning about the ingredients and where they come from teaches you about your state and your artisans.
We’re lucky in Indiana, we have one of the top maltsers in the country in Sugar Creek Malt, and we also have a significant group of hop growers. Caleb at Sugar Creek produces a range of malts and grains seen almost nowhere else, and his techniques meld the old world and the new. He has the only sainnhus in the Western Hemisphere, a particular building that uses open flame and air drying to create Nordic malts, and he has bred a malt to recreate those grown before the turn of the century (the 20th cent., not the 21st).
Craft malting has taken off in the US in the last 10 years or so, and there are small maltsters all over the country now. It is my fervent hope that small malting will really take off, and the movement toward locality will grow. There is a Craft Maltsters Guild now that is working to help spread the word and knowledge of craft malts. Look for a longer article soon specifically about their work.
The Indiana Hop Growers Association used to represent many of the hop growers in the state of Indiana (on hiatus right now), and we do have a bunch. Crazy Horse is the biggest, but Howe Farms in Crown Point, Hanley Hops and Indy High Bines in Indy, Knob View Hops in Floyd’s Knobs, Cone Keepers Hop Yard in Demotte, Liberty Hop Farm in North Liberty Root 9 Hops in Columbia City, and Honey Creek Hops in Greenwood are putting out great hops as well. And I didn’t even get to mention all the hop growers in the state. The Indiana SMaSH from Creatures of Habit used only Copper hops from Crazy Horse, but there are plenty of beers around the state that are using hops from Indiana growers.
Many people know their favorite beers by name, or flavor, or even by label, but how many of your craft beer friends know where the ingredients for their favorite beer came from. Ask the breweries you visit – it makes a difference, and the knowledge of it turns you from a fan to a connoisseur and an advocate for local craft.