Author Topic: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt  (Read 2125 times)

Offline skyler

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In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« on: February 12, 2021, 07:16:09 PM »
I've noticed a trend over the past several years of people in the brewing community hating on crystal malts. Although they are probably the most widely used specialty grain and feature in the overwhelming majority of "craft" beers, it seems like the overuse of crystal malt in lower-quality IPAs (especially like those produced by second rate breweries from ~2005-2015) has led brewers to believe that crystal malt, even in small quantities somehow "clashes with" or "dampens" hop flavor and aroma. While this somewhat makes sense in the context of the ever-evolving IPA style, and there is certainly merit to the concept of simplifying malt character in a beer that is predominantly a hop showcase, I have noticed the trend extend beyond IPA (indeed beyond hop-forward styles generally).

I recently encountered a discussion on another forum where the OP discussed missing the hoppy red ales that were popular about a decade ago, like Green Flash Hop Head Red and AleSmith Evil Dead Red. He sought to recreate this style, but opted not to use any crystal malt, despite knowing that various types of caramel malts contributed prominently to the character of every commercial example he cited. When I inquired, he stated that he replaced crystal malt with heaps of melanoidin malt and chocolate malt since "we’ve learned more about that interaction [between hops and crystal malt]," indicating that crystal malt inherently interfered with hop flavor in a way that melanoidin-rich malts and roasted malts do not.

Not long ago, I took part in a group brew where we customized an Imperial Stout recipe. Here there was a push to exclude any crystal malt, as well.

I think there are three main things that crystal malt bring to a beer: flavor, body, and residual "sweetness." I put "sweetness" in quotes because while residual sugar/starch is what I mean and that does not necessarily come across as "sweet" on the palate in every single scenario. Body and residual sweetness are related because unfermentable sugars are going to provide both. I understand fully the desire to limit sweetness and body in certain styles. That's why I use zero to very little crystal malt in a Festbier, for example (I can take or leave about 2% carahell or carafoam). And perhaps in an IPA, maximizing dryness might be desired in a west coast example and a New England version may get sufficient body from the adjuncts and sweetness from the use of a less attentuative yeast strain. Neither of these perfectly good reasons to omit crystal malts from an IPA (or several other styles) really apply to a hoppy red ale or an Imperial stout, and they weren't the reason given by the different brewers who objected to the crystal malt.

But the real issue that a lot of my fellow brewers are having with Crystal malt is its flavor. In my mind, the flavor ranges from a subtle honey nut cheerios sweetness in something like a CaraHell to a dried fig and date-like rich fruitiness in something like a Special B. Typical C-60 provides the most "classic" crystal malt flavor, I think -- a syrupy quality that I associate with a varie5ty of older craft beers and, at worst, insipid amber ales. But I also see C-60 in smaller quantities in some of the all-time best IPAs, even. I suppose I just don't understand what is so widely objectionable about this family of malts that makes it "off limits" for certain brewers or "off limits" to beers with notable hop aroma. I assume it's that an IPA with ~10% C-60 (common for a time) is going to be fairly sweet and heavy. And an under-hopped red ale with ~10% C-60 and another 2-3% C-120 or C-80 is going to be an unbalanced malt bomb. But while a beer with 10% Melanoidin malt and 4% pale chocolate might not have the same "caramel" taste, it can have the same finishing gravity by adjusting mash temperature or yeast choice, so it doesn't strike me as fundamentally more "hop-friendly" unless you judge melanoidin and roast to be more of a hop-friendly (or "hoplimentary") flavor than the flavor imparted by caramel malt. Of course taste is subjective and people are free to not like a certain flavor combination that I like, but I wonder if it is now more of a "homebrew myth" that crystal malt is a beer ruiner (the way Ringwood was a beer ruiner back in 2006).

In any case, I like crystal malts and use them in many styles, but omit them from others. I tend to like about 4% carahell in an IPA and I always use a fair amount of crystal in a red/amber ale, brown ale, porter or bitter. I don't understand the hate, but then I also never understood the love people had of certain styles (looking at you NEIPA and "Gose").

I'd love to hear others' thoughts about the C-hate, especially if there is something I am missing. It always struck me as odd that so many people don't find melanoidin-rich flavors odd in a hoppy beer (hoppy Oktoberfest is not what I want in an IPA, personally).
« Last Edit: February 12, 2021, 07:56:29 PM by skyler »

Offline denny

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #1 on: February 12, 2021, 07:45:12 PM »
If you like it, use it.  If you don't, don't use it.  Like most things in homebrewing, people are far too influenced by what someone else says.
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Offline dannyjed

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #2 on: February 12, 2021, 08:10:49 PM »
I use Crystal malt in a lot of my recipes. I tried making my IPA with just Pale and Munich malt and I just didn’t like it as much as when I use Crystal malt. I think the caramel flavor goes well with many styles and can enhance hop flavors.


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Offline pete b

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #3 on: February 12, 2021, 08:15:27 PM »
I like Bitters made with no crystal malt and IPAs with just pale malt and munich. I also like Bitters and IPAs with crystal malt. So I will continue to brew with and without it.
I think its a must in stouts and porters.
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Offline BrewBama

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In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #4 on: February 12, 2021, 08:26:45 PM »
Good post. I have also seen this aversion to C malts (crystal/caramel/cara-something) building lately. ...but I think of them as a tool in a toolbox. If I need a flat tip screwdriver I use one. Even if I like my lineman’s pliers better, they’re not the right tool for every job.

Same with C malts. They have their place — normally a single digit % in my total grist when used.


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Offline Descardeci

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #5 on: February 12, 2021, 08:35:16 PM »
I honest love beer with crystal malt, a tend to put they in a lot of my beers, my best beer, a best bitter, is made with a good amount of crystal malt, they only recipes I don't use they some belgians and most of my germans beers

Offline denny

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #6 on: February 12, 2021, 08:35:41 PM »
Good post. I have also seen this aversion to C malts (crystal/caramel/cara-something) building lately. ...but I think of them as a tool in a toolbox. If I need a flat tip screwdriver I use one. Even if I like my lineman’s pliers better, they’re not the right tool for every job.

Same with C malts. They have their place — normally a single digit % in my total grist when used.


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Exactly the way I think of it, too. 
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Offline Megary

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #7 on: February 12, 2021, 09:18:32 PM »
Dealer's choice.

I find that beers with an obvious crystal presence are simply "one and done" beers for me.  Just not drinkable enough.  I'll just get it over with and say that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a classic example.  Delicious at first taste and I'm reaching for the pretzels by the end of the glass.  I never want a second.

My use of C-malts is based entirely on my tastes and the style of beer I'm brewing, which means I use them, but with restraint.
I like my Stouts dry, so never, ever in a Stout.  But my Porters definitely benefit from some Crystal.  Of course, I like to make sure my Stouts and Porters have a clear separation.  A touch in an IPA or Pale is OK by me, but just a touch.

Offline Saccharomyces

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #8 on: February 12, 2021, 10:23:42 PM »
I have also seen this aversion to C malts (crystal/caramel/cara-something) building lately. ...but I think of them as a tool in a toolbox. If I need a flat tip screwdriver I use one. Even if I like my lineman’s pliers better, they’re not the right tool for every job.

I have always used crystal/caramel malt in English-style beers.  Heck, it is impossible to make clones of early microbrews without crystal/caramel malt. SNPA is a good example.  I still like that beer.

Offline majorvices

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #9 on: February 12, 2021, 11:07:27 PM »
I love Crystal malts. I don't love it when crystal malts are over used in some beers. Some beers can take a lot of crystal malt. Eventually it comes down to personal preference.

Offline tommymorris

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #10 on: February 12, 2021, 11:48:28 PM »
First, I love a good hoppy red that has a sweet candy flavor. That’s one of my favorite styles. I think thats a combo of caramel 60 and Munich malt.

I like caramel malts but usually get nervous if I see a recipe that calls for more than 10% by weight.

I don’t use them at all in light lagers. There I like a mixture of Pilsner, Munich, and Vienna only.  But, I know a percent or two of carafoam or carahell can fly under the radar.

Offline BeerfanOz

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #11 on: February 13, 2021, 02:14:05 AM »
I use crystal sparingly in most beers, as I like beers on the drier side, but love bitters with just simpsons medium crystal and Maris Otter. And my favourite hoppy style is American amber. Love an amber coloured beer jam packed with C hops!

I prefer a smaller percentage of special B or cara aroma to a bigger percentage of a lighter crystal most of the time.


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Offline majorvices

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #12 on: February 13, 2021, 02:31:16 AM »
I think the adversity to crystal malt came about as a reaction to early homebrew recipes where every beer had crystal malt in it and often not with a gentle hand.

Offline erockrph

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #13 on: February 13, 2021, 03:33:16 AM »
I think the adversity to crystal malt came about as a reaction to early homebrew recipes where every beer had crystal malt in it and often not with a gentle hand.
Right, and homebrew lore became C-malt = sweet and sweet = bad. I don't think that Crystal malt always leads to a sweet beer when used properly.

And going back to the melanoiden heavy beers with hops, I've tried that quite a few times and it just doesn't work. Beers with a lot of Munich/Aromatic/Melanoiden malt clash with hops and mute the hop flavor in my experience. On the other hand, hops and Crystal malt can work great together. SNPA and Evil Twin are good examples.

I like the flavor of Crystal malts, especially the darker end of the spectrum. I use them when they fit the recipe I'm looking for and I have no reservations in doing so. Lately I've been using Simpsons DRC quite a bit and I really enjoy the flavor I get from it.

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Offline Saccharomyces

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Re: In Defense of Crystal (Caramel) Malt
« Reply #14 on: February 13, 2021, 01:23:30 PM »
I think the adversity to crystal malt came about as a reaction to early homebrew recipes where every beer had crystal malt in it and often not with a gentle hand.

That is because most early recipes were extract-based and the easiest way to get fresh malt flavor into an extract beer is via steeping crystal malt.  When many amateur brewers moved to all-grain they just converted their early recipes from extract to all-grain. These recipes were shared with other less experienced brewers.  Most of the beers that I have made have contained between 4 and 10% of some kind of crystal or cara malt.  My standard ale grist in the nineties was 91% base/4.5% torrified wheat/4.5% crystal or cara malt. The only things that changed were the yeast culture and the hops.