Is single better?
When brewing a Pilsner-type lager is a single malt better than a blended malt? A silly question perhaps, but some people tell me that a single malt is superior to malt blended from different varieties. Is this true?
One truth about beer and brewing is that there are opinions and theories related to just about everything imaginable. When it comes to brewing a beer style like Pilsner it is entirely possible and quite common to brew excellent beers using only one malt type. Bear in mind that relatively few beer styles can be brewed with only one malt type. Most beers contain a blend of various malts and specialty malts. And in the global scheme of brewing most beers these days contain some adjunct ingredients such as corn, rice or some fermentable syrup made from a variety of starchy raw materials.
When I read your question I cannot help but wonder if the advice you have been given is not from a distorted interpretation of Scotch marketing. In the world of Scotch, so-called single malts reign supreme. But this term does not mean that the Scotch was brewed from a single malt variety, lot of malt or even from a single batch or barrel of whisky. A single malt Scotch is from a single distillery, as opposed to a blended Scotch that contains whiskies from various distilleries blended into one.
Contrary to the belief of some brewers, malt, the stuff we use to brew beer as opposed to the contracted name often applied to Scotch, is not something that brewers often get as an “unblended” product. In fact, to back up a little, I am not even sure how unblended malt could be produced since maltsters begin with barley and — you guessed it — silos of barley contain billions of kernels coming from different farms and harvested by multiple combines. In other words, barley is blended before any of the malting process ever begins.
Most batches of malt do indeed begin with a single variety of barley because different varieties have different malting properties and blending prior to malting would likely result in very inconsistent malt with respect to modification. After malting is complete maltsters do blend malt lots. Usually malt is blended to either produce a blend meeting a set of specifications or to produce uniformity among various lots. Some blends are made from a single variety and other blends contain multiple varieties.
Without getting into excessive detail about malt specifications and the nuances of blending, I just want to make the point in attempt to give you a general understanding of this topic that blending is
not some method used by greedy corporations to make more profits at the expense of quality. Agricultural products by their very nature have variation within crop lots and blending is used to even out these variations.
When it comes to brewing I will repeat an old theme of mine and that is to have a reason behind your decision. I have brewed really nice ales from 100% floor malted Maris Otter barley malt. The first time was one of those, “I wonder what this will taste like?” brews. For my palate, the fullness of the malt was a bit too much and I now usually blend Maris Otter malt with some pale domestic 2-row to get the malt character I want in my brews. This is my own decision and is based on one thing; flavor. And blending is what we brewers do to develop flavor.
The way I see it is that the negative connotation with the term blended was exploited by people with marketing degrees who created an air of superiority associated with words such as unblended, single variety and single barrel. At the end of the day it’s all about flavor. If you want to experiment with single varieties to better understand flavor go for it, but don’t be fooled into thinking that you will make a better beer because of it.