Everyone from beer-drinking novices to Cicerones can articulate the basic composition of a beer: water, malt, hops, and yeast. Yet one of these four basic ingredients is lauded far more than the others: hops.

Hops and their varieties tend to be praised with a “more-is-better” attitude, despite the fact that it’s the malt profile, not hops’ flavoring, that ultimately creates the backbone of a beer.

Barley has long been the primary source of fermentable sugar and the catalyst for beer’s bready, roasty, and toasty flavors, and the malting process has been integral to brewing for centuries. Hops, a preservative herb and bittering agent, entered the equation much later, and more recently became the “it” ingredient of craft beer.

But brewers, maltsters, and researchers are making a case for paying more attention to malt selection, varieties, and growing patterns, which will ultimately, hopefully, inch this integral ingredient into the spotlight.

Making a Case for Malt

According to “Tasting Beer” by Randy Mosher, the malting process used for beer making was well established by 3000 B.C.E, and chemical evidence places the advent of hopped beer around 550 B.C.E. While barley has long been the primary source of fermentable sugar and the catalyst for the bread, roast, and toast flavors in beer, prior to 1000 C.E. most of the spiced aromas in beer were imparted using herbs and spices, including a particular blend called gruit.

Christian Holbrook, the brewmaster at New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colo., believes that malt plays a more important role in brewing than hops. “Out of the four ingredients, hops are easily fourth on that list,” says Holbrook. In addition to contributing to a beer’s flavor, he points out that malt is critical for yeast health, explaining that its concentration of free amino nitrogen (a.k.a. FAN) and minerals like zinc, magnesium, and manganese help promote yeast growth, benefit fermentation, and aid in beer maturation. He also adds that there is a lack of balance in beers with little residual malt extract. “The bottom falls out of them,” says Holbrook, “because they’ve been fermented so far down that there is no malt left.”

Chris Schooley of Troubadour Maltings, also in Fort Collins, emphasizes that even in hop-forward beers, malt contributes more than just sugar and color. “In hazy-style beers,” he says, “the malt is integral to the mouthfeel as well as to promoting those juicier flavors from the aromatic hops. By playing around with temperature and moisture content during the kilning process, a maltster engages in Maillard reactions.” This non-enzymatic browning process adds color and flavor to beer. The beer, says Schooley, “can develop deeply fruited flavors with complex sweetness. In more yeast-driven styles, such as sours and spontaneous fermentations, the malt is the food for those bugs that helps to build all of those nuances.”

While malt may play a significant role in both the brewing process and finished product, beer-related malted barley research lags behind the efforts and resources the brewing industry is putting toward performing hop studies, Holbrook says. “Research development among malting barley varieties isn’t there yet,” he says. “It’s 15 to 20 years behind where hop research is now.” It’s that research that has led to the shift in focus from the level of bitterness that hops can provide to the more complex aromas and flavors that get touted today.

Schooley adds that much of the research for brewing malt is geared toward variety studies and comparisons, but he suggests that there is a need for more research on malt quality. “I’d personally like to see a continued push toward better understanding of all the impacts on malt quality,” he says, “especially within the actual process of malting. Specifically, there is painfully little out there about the impact of malt freshness.” That’s because research in this area typically reflects large-scale operations, Schooley says, but his own experience has yielded different results from the bulk of research available.

“What is out there about freshness mostly says that malt is supposed to rest after its process for a good long while before use in brewing, or it will negatively affect loitering times,” Schooley says. “But this research mostly reflects both malts and beers produced on extremely large scales — and does not reflect small-batch malting and brewing. Using malts within less than a month of roasting has, in our experience, led to incredible nuance and complexity with a discernible reduction in the harsh and bitter flavors generally associated with darker roasts.”

How Hops Got the Jump on Barley

According to the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in London, the primary use of hops is in the brewing process, whereas most barley is used for animal feed. Since hops are specifically created for the beer industry, large hop farms are focused on meeting the needs of brewers. This often leads to collaborations with brewers on hops research and selection. With only a small percentage of barley production going toward beer, the relationship between brewers and the barley and malting industries isn’t as interdependent.

But again, this isn’t to say that barley is less important than hops. Though only a relatively small percentage of barley is used for brewing, there are strict specifications for barley variety, total nitrogen, and kernel size in the malting process. Brewers are also in competition with distillers and makers of food products to obtain the best malted barley, so while barley may not elicit the same fervor that hops do, it’s still an important consideration for brewers. “Craft maltsters,” Holbrook points out, are also “starting to offer custom malt specs, unlike larger malt providers.” In this sense, they’re taking a page out of the hop farmers’ playbook and using these stringent specifications to help distinguish and promote their products.

Another reason that hops are eclipsing malt in popularity these days is that brewers have more creative freedom to use them in a variety of ways throughout many different parts of the brewing process; whereas, aside from combining different barley varieties in the grain bill (or decoction mashing for malt that is not well modified), most of the variation for malt occurs during the malting process, not brewing operations.

And as Holbrook points out, the old, tired names associated with barley varieties aren’t helping barley compete with hops. The promotional strategy connecting hops to their distinctive aromas and flavors has been highly successful. “Even if you’re not a beer expert,” says Holbrook, “you can smell that a beer brewed with Galaxy hops has that ‘noticeable difference,’ and then the brewer can say, ‘Oh, that’s Galaxy!’ Who doesn’t want to put Galaxy in their mouth?” He goes on to explain that the connection is so exciting that brewers even go on to name their beers after certain hops. “With malts,” he says, “the names are not as evocative, and there hasn’t been very much [in the malting industry] that’s been new for the brewers to get excited about and build recipes around.”

Does this mean that hops will forever outpace malt? Schooley doesn’t think so. He thinks maltsters can take up the charge to change people’s perception of malt by “offering something new and different either through different barley varieties or through freshness and creativity in the malting process,” and by “giving them interesting, memorable names that people can associate with these new exciting flavors.” Craft malting is a story, he says, that must have “compelling characters.”

Schooley also thinks that consumers can play a role in giving malt the spotlight by expressing interest in all the core ingredients in craft beer. “If you’re paying a premium craft price for a premium craft product,” says Schooley, “I believe that the craftsperson should be able to articulate where their raw materials come from, why they chose them, and what they bring to the beer.”

All you have to do is ask.