The Brew Site

The Session #125: SMaSH Beers

This month’s edition of The Session is being hosted by friend and fellow beer blogger, Mark Lindner, the Bend Beer Librarian, and he’s chosen a topic deceptive in its simplicity: SMaSH Beers.

Our local, annual SMaSH Fest, part of Central Oregon Beer Week, happened two weekends ago. Sadly, I missed it this year due to a bout of illness. When considering whether I was going to make it or not, I jokingly asked myself if single malt and single hop beers can be considered a “thing” (trendy, etc.) until we have coffee-infused, barrel-aged, and fruit SMaSH beers. Maybe we do; I have not seen them yet though.

Here are some potential directions you could consider:

  • Answer my question above. Are they trendy? When would they be considered to be trendy? Have you seen/had a variant (x-infused, fruit, …) single malt and single hop beer? More than one?
  • What purpose do SMaSH beers fill? For you, personally, and/or generally.
  • Do they fill a niche in any beer style space? One that matters to you? Are they a “style,” however you define that?
  • Have you ever had an excellent one? As a SMaSH beer or as a beer, period.
  • Do you brew them?
  • Are there any styles besides pale ale/IPA that can be achieved via a single malt and single hop beer? (How about achieved versus done quite well.)
  • Do they offer anything to drinkers, especially non-brewing drinkers?

I consider this to be wide open and am interested in your thoughts, whatever they are, regarding SMaSH beers. I sincerely hope this is not too limiting of a topic in the number of people who have tasted and/or brewed single malt and single hop beers.

My first thought, in response to Mark’s question about becoming trendy, is that I don’t know that I would consider a SMaSH beer “legit” if it contains additional ingredients beyond the requisite one malt and one hop. For me, the philosophy behind “SMaSH” — Single Malt and Single Hop — is to brew a beer that showcases that one malt and that one hop. Perhaps I’m being a bit Reinheitsgebot-ish, but once you start adding other ingredients then you’ve diverged from that malt and hop showcase to highlight… other things.

That having been said, I’ve always thought there is great latitude to experiment within the guidelines of one hop and one malt. For instance, there are many stages at which a brewer can add hops to a beer: in the mash, first wort, during the boil at various times, knockout, whirlpool, dry hopping.

Similarly, consider malt manipulation: infusion mash, decoction mash, kettle souring for starters. But what if the brewer gets really creative and takes a portion of that one malt and toasts it in an oven ahead of time? Or smokes it? There’s still that single malt but there is a whole depth of potential flavor development possible.

And personally, I would already consider a proper SMaSH beer “trendy” because, frankly, such a simple style (or recipe, or technique, or whatever you want to call it) that it’s unusual in and of itself.

I don’t believe I’ve ever brewed a SMaSH beer at home, myself, because I’ve never been able to resist tinkering with recipes which invariably means multiple malts and often multiple hops. I have in mind at some point to brew a Session IPA as a SMaSH beer, but I haven’t yet gotten around to it. If and when I do, I think I will use a pilsner malt and Citra hops.

Are there any styles besides pale ale/IPA that can be achieved via a single malt and single hop beer?

That is a very good question. Since you have to start with a base malt that has the diastatic (enzymatic) ability to convert itself (basically, it has to convert itself from starch to sugar for the yeast to turn into beer), and darker malts lack that, you are more or less limited to the paler end of the spectrum. On a practical level, I believe Munich malt is about as dark a base malt as you can get that will still convert itself, which takes you into amber color (and flavor) territory.

However, if you get adventurous and take a portion of your malt and attempt to toast it to darken it up—both in color and flavor—then you can certainly play around with darker styles. I don’t know that I’ve heard of anyone actually doing this, but it certainly intrigues as an option. Or! What if the brewer were to take a portion of the wort after the mash and cook that down to caramelize it? That might be a terrific option to develop dark colors and Maillard-derived flavors.

By this point if it’s not obvious, I’m a fan of the SMaSH beer, both in concept and most of the time in execution, and I would love to see more brewers offering them up—or if they already do, for instance with a pilsner, highlight them as such, because I would seek them out. From a homebrewing as well as just a general “beer geek” perspective I love to explore how single ingredients present and contribute to a beer, and I think others do as well. (Hence why “single hop series” type beers tend to be popular, in my experience.)

And, I’m pretty sure I’m now obligated to brew one… if for nothing else, to share with Mark, who just brewed his first last weekend (which happened to be his first overall batch as well). If and when that happens, I will write it up—watch this space!