Malty Beer is Making a Comeback #BrewedAwakening

By / Wine + Drinks / February 9th, 2018 / 4

I’ve been lobbying hard in recent years for breweries (and consumers) to remember that the main ingredient in beer is malted barley. The new wave of beer lovers has been trained to think that hops should be the dominant flavour/aroma contributor to a good beer, and that’s simply wrong. In fact, history shows us that hops aren’t even a required component, semantics aside (at one point in history in England ‘beer’ was the word for hopped ale, but it has gradually become the catch-all term for all styles of this beloved beverage). Beer has been made for at least 9000 years, and hops have only been used as the main addition to beer for just the last 1000 years or so. Before that, beer was flavoured (and preserved – for that was arguably the main reason hops became commonly used in beer) with a mix of spices and fruit that was called gruit.

According to Wikipedia the common herbs used were sweet gale, mugwort, yarrow, ground ivy, horehound, and Calluna heather, but could also include juniper berries, ginger, caraway seed, aniseed, nutmeg, cinnamon, and hops. Hops gradually took over as the main flavouring/preserving agent for beer, but that wasn’t until around the mid 19th century.

Gruit beers are increasingly common these days, as small brewers attempt to duplicate historical brews. That’s pretty cool, but my favourite beers are those where malt dominates, and hops are there as support/balance only, not the first thing you smell or the last thing you taste. I’m not a fan of the long lingering (like all the way to the morning) bitterness common with many of today’s IPAs and DIPAs.

Maybee ESB on tap at Britt’s Pub in Saint John, NB

I prefer what I call malt forward beers. Thankfully, there are a few small brewers who must be growing a bit tired of only finding IPAs on bar tap lists, and are starting to brew more reds, milds, and even the endangered English style bitter – my favourite beer style. I’ve seen an increase locally (in southern New Brunswick) of ESBs and Golden Ales/UK style cream ales, and that makes me happy.  I’ve previously praised Foghorn‘s Esty Special Bitter, and last week I tried two new ESBs, one from Fredericton’s Maybee, and another from Saint John based Loyalist City.  All these beers are defined by the distinctly delicious flavour of malted barley…with some hops to balance, but not in your face.

These malt forward beers from forward thinking breweries are hopefully a sign of more good things to come.


Craig Pinhey discovered good drink circa 1985 at Ginger’s Tavern/Granite Brewery in Halifax and has been writing about beer, wine and spirits for 25 years. A Certified Sommelier and BJCP judge, Craig lives in New Brunswick where he runs his own writing and consulting business and is the beverage columnist for Brunswick News. He is the only person to have judged all of the national wine, spirits and beer awards of Canada.

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