The Se­cret of Hops is Malt 

Most brew­ers and drinkers as­so­ciate the IPA style with hops, but Mark Hast­ings of Über­brew ar­gues that the se­lec­tion and com­bi­na­tion of hops va­ri­eties isn't the end-all, be-all of brew­ing hoppy styles. The real magic is find­ing the right malt and yeast co

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - The Politics Of Craft - By Jamie Bogner

BILLINGS, MON­TANA’S ÜBER­BREW

might be a new name for some—their dra­matic per­for­mance at 2016’s Great Amer­i­can Beer Fes­ti­val, which in­cluded 4 medals (in­clud­ing gold in the hotly con­tested Im­pe­rial IPA cat­e­gory) and “Small Brewer of the Year” hon­ors, caught a lot of peo­ple by sur­prise—but win­ning medals is noth­ing new for Head Brewer and Co­founder Mark Hast­ings. He won his first gold for Sharp­tail Pale Ale back in 1998 while work­ing for

Mon­tana Brew­ing Com­pany, then scored a sec­ond gold for Tum­ble­weed IPA in 2001 while brew­ing for Sleep­ing Gi­ant Brew­ing Com­pany (both in Billings, Mon­tana).

Hast­ings left the brew­ing world for a num­ber of years, but when lo­cal Billings home­brewer Ja­son Shroyer found out that Hast­ings, then man­ag­ing a pizza joint, was a mul­ti­ple GABF medal win­ner, he started bring­ing him home­brew for feed­back.

“I went through a ten-year hia­tus,” says Hast­ings. “A dark pe­riod where I wasn’t brew­ing beer.”

Even­tu­ally, a friend­ship was struck, plans were formed, fund­ing was lined up, and five years ago Über­brew started mak­ing beer with Hast­ings man­ning the ket­tle and Shroyer man­ag­ing the busi­ness.

Hast­ings has al­ways loved to push the lim­its, no mat­ter what he was brew­ing— Sharp­tail was one of the rea­sons the Brew­ers As­so­ci­a­tion cre­ated the “strong pale ale” cat­e­gory—and his re­turn to brew­ing sparked the same com­pet­i­tive fire that fu­eled those early days. How­ever, the decade in be­tween his brew­ing tenures had seen re­mark­able changes on the in­gre­di­ent side of craft beer, with a brewer’s buf­fet of new hops of­fer­ing a tremen­dous range of fresh fla­vors and aro­mas. Hast­ings had found his call­ing.

Hops

“When we de­cided to open Über­brew, we knew we were go­ing to do hops-for­ward beers be­cause that’s just what I’m best at. In my first stint at brew­ing, I was a Cen­ten­nial and Cas­cade guy be­cause that’s what we had,” says Hast­ings. “When I came back, I had to learn how to brew IPA all over again be­cause in that ten years, it had changed so much.”

Whether the hops them­selves changed or palates changed (al­ter­ing mod­ern drinkers’ per­cep­tions of them) is sub­ject for de­bate. But there’s no deny­ing that pri­or­i­ties for

hops grow­ers have changed over the past ten years. Pro­tect­ing frag­ile aro­mas and fla­vors is of ut­most con­cern, where a decade ago al­pha acids were still the pri­or­ity.

“There was a time there when the in­fra­struc­ture of hops wasn’t keep­ing up with the hops that were go­ing through, so I hon­estly be­lieve some hops weren’t what they were back in the 90s. They spent too much time on the vine, or they spent too much time be­fore they were pro­cessed.”

Malt

While hops are an ob­vi­ous fo­cus for any brewer mak­ing hops-for­ward beers, the real se­cret to the beers Über­brew makes is the in­gre­di­ent many brew­ers pay less at­ten­tion to—malt.

“Malt is just as im­por­tant to IPA as hops are,” says Hast­ings. “There’s a trend to­ward lighter, crisper IPAS so that hops can shine, but I think a lot of brew­ers who are us­ing do­mes­tic malts are us­ing things like Mu­nich malt to mimic her­itage va­ri­eties from the U.K. We use a lot of Ger­man malt, a lot of English malt, Scot­tish malt, and even Ir­ish malt for our IPAS. We try it all to see how we can get that malt-hop in­ter­ac­tion and the candy-like fla­vors that help ac­cen­tu­ate the hops. Rather than say­ing, ‘This is the cheap­est malt we can get,’ we ask, ‘What in­ter­acts with hops in a way that gets what we’re look­ing for?’ ”

Low pro­tein malts are the key, and Über­brew’s SMASH beer pro­gram (brew­ing beers with iden­ti­cal recipes but with sin­gle malts and sin­gle hops) has helped them dial in the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters that malts con­trib­ute to their beers. Their base malt was ini­tially Maris Ot­ter but shifted to an Ir­ish malt from the Malt­ing Com­pany of Ire­land, but as Hast­ings says, “I loved the per­for­mance but the fla­vor wasn’t there.”

About a year ago, they be­gan brew­ing with Golden Prom­ise.

“That’s now our SMASH base malt, and I love the in­ter­ac­tion we’re get­ting be­tween hops and Golden Prom­ise. It’s more of a fla­vor in­ter­ac­tion than aroma, but I think that’s im­por­tant—you can’t just fo­cus on bit­ter­ness, just like you can’t just fo­cus on aroma. There has to be a bridge there if you’re try­ing to tell a story with a beer. A be­gin­ning, a mid­dle, and an end. And I think the malt is what helps build that bridge.”

Spe­cialty malts are kept low—gen­er­ally 1 per­cent or less, but even in small quan­ti­ties, they pro­vide a touch of ex­tra char­ac­ter. But they have yet to find do­mes­tic malts that give them the cot­ton-candy or Pez-like notes that they look for.

“We im­port ev­ery­thing. So it’s ei­ther Wey­er­mann, Crisp, or it’s Simp­sons Golden Prom­ise de­spite the fact that we’re smack dab in the mid­dle of bar­ley­grow­ing coun­try.”

Yeast

Über­brew’s de­fault yeast strain might come as a sur­prise to those who as­so­ciate it with more con­tem­po­rary trends, but Hast­ings can lay claim to OG sta­tus.

“I’ve been us­ing Lon­don Ale III since 1996 and ab­so­lutely love that yeast,” says Hast­ings. “It’s re­ally cool that it’s be­ing dis­cov­ered now. Chico ale or Cal­i­for­nia ale are so pop­u­lar, but I never fig­ured that yeast out. We have very high cal­ci­um­car­bon­ate wa­ter in Billings, and so I wanted a less at­ten­u­a­tive yeast to coun­ter­act some of the harsh­ness you get out of high cal­cium-car­bon­ate wa­ter. It worked and we just kept play­ing with it.”

While the yeast is best known for its ex­ten­sive use in hazy New Eng­land–style IPAS from Tril­lium and oth­ers, Hast­ings coaxes it into all sorts of uses that range from non-tur­bid IPAS to en­tirely un­ex­pected styles.

“We just won a gold medal for our cream ale at the North Amer­i­can Beer Awards. We over­pitch and fer­ment cool with Lon­don Ale III, and it gets very lager-like. So I like the yeast strain be­cause of its ver­sa­til­ity. But orig­i­nally we used it be­cause it at­ten­u­ated a lit­tle less and has a nice, soft ester pro­file.”

The Im­por­tance of Tast­ing

One core tenet to Über­brew’s brew­ing phi­los­o­phy is en­gag­ing with, learn­ing from, and shar­ing with fel­low brew­ers. Brew­ery en­vi­ron­ments can grow in­su­lar with staff and brew­ers drink­ing

the brew­ery’s own beer, cre­at­ing a brew­ing echo cham­ber that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the more di­verse palates of their cus­tomers. Hast­ings and team work to over­come that by brew­ing a lot of col­lab­o­ra­tion beers and by reg­u­larly tast­ing beer from out­side their mar­ket.

“Ev­ery Mon­day we have cus­tomers, home­brew­ers, and staff who get to­gether, and the only price of ad­mis­sion to the tast­ing is that you bring some­thing. We taste as much as we can and are def­i­nitely in­flu­enced by what other peo­ple are do­ing. If we taste some­thing from Tril­lium or Odd13 or Weld­w­erks and think, ‘Oh, that’s amaz­ing,’ then the next step is to ask ‘How did they do that’ and ‘What can we find out about that?’

“Some­times you pick up the phone and have that con­ver­sa­tion be­cause they’re peo­ple you know, but some­times it’s read­ing publi­ca­tions such as Craft Beer & Brew­ing Mag­a­zine® to see what we can glean from a recipe then make it our own. It’s all knowl­edge, and ul­ti­mately that knowl­edge comes from tast­ing ev­ery­thing you can. But it’s not just tast­ing—it’s tast­ing and talk­ing about it.”

That strat­egy is clearly work­ing, if the 2016 Great Amer­i­can Beer Fes­ti­val is a re­spectable mea­sure of suc­cess. The whirl­wind of at­ten­tion, fes­ti­val in­vites, ad­di­tional col­lab­o­ra­tions, and in­dus­try in­ter­est has been dizzy­ing. But Hast­ings still has work to do and isn’t ready to rest on his lau­rels yet.

“Über is our mis­sion, our quest to be a su­perla­tive ex­am­ple of its class or kind. We’re con­stantly try­ing to make the best IPA we can, so we have to try ev­ery­thing un­der the sun and learn from it.”

“Malt is just as im­por­tant to IPA as hops are,” says Hast­ings. “We use a lot of [im­ported] malt to see how we can get that malt-hop in­ter­ac­tion and the candy-like fla­vors that help ac­cen­tu­ate the hops. Rather than say­ing, ‘This is the cheap­est malt we can get,’ we ask, ‘What in­ter­acts with hops in a way that gets what we’re look­ing for?’ There has to be a bridge there if you’re try­ing to tell a story with a beer. A be­gin­ning, a mid­dle, and an end. And I think the malt is what helps build that bridge.”

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