Trend Alert: Beers Brewed with Obscure Grains

Spelt? Kamut? Why more brewers are moving beyond barley

So you’ll forgive me if I had no idea what amaranth was until a few weeks ago, right? That’s when the beer fairy dropped a bomber of Hopworks Urban Brewery’s Organic Survival 7-Grain Stout on my doorstep. And that’s the moment when I embarked on a crash course on the history of grains… And the beers that love them.

Malted grain – malted barley for instance – produces the fermentable sugars that yeast transforms into alcohol (you’re getting a history and science lesson today. Deal with it). Most modern craft brewers use barley, barley, some more barley, and if the brewer is feeling crazy, barley as their malted grain base. Hopworks Brewmaster Christian Ettinger is not most modern craft brewers.

Check out the grain bill for Ettinger’s Survival Stout: spelt, amaranth, Kamut, oats, wheat, barley and quinoa. “People want a beer with a great taste and a great narrative,” Ettinger says. “And the story of beer is the story of civilization.”

Here’s what he means: Archeologists have long speculated that farmers originally domesticated grains thousands of years ago not to make bread, but to make beer. When we started farming, we pretty much left behind the life of the hunter-gatherer. We settled down. Ipso facto, I blame beer for suburbs.

But back to beer with obscure grains in it. Ancient civilizations used all kinds of grains to make beer, Ettinger says. Many African cultures used (and use) sorghum. Native American tribes used corn. “Amaranth, spelt, Kamut – these are ancient grains. These are grains that ushered in the age of agriculture. It’s fun to use them in a beer and start a conversation about where we come from.”

So when did we turn away from spelt and turn into barley Puritans? In 1516, German authorities created a beer purity law that proscribed the use of anything but water, barley and hops for brewing beer. The law was meant to control prices and to keep toxic ingredients out of beer, but it effectively shut down the use of adjuncts (stuff other than water, barley and hops) in a major beer culture. A beer culture that has heavily influenced our own.

But you can expect to see more and more craft brewers experimenting with heirloom grains. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery has been on the vanguard of this trend with its Ancient Ales series of beers. And with an ever-increasing demand for gluten-free beers, varieties brewed sans barley are popping up everywhere.

So on top of your history lesson, in addition to your beer science primer, it’s time for a vocabulary pop quiz:

Q: What are amaranth, spelt and Kamut?

A: Delicious in beer.

Grade: A+