The sweetest thing: Malts 101
Following on from our Hops 101 session, this time around we look at the mysterious and magical malt and its place in the divine art of beer brewing.
What is malt?
Malted cereal grains are the foundation of beer brewing. Simply put, the malted grains provide the sugars that the yeast feasts on to make alcohol and carbon dioxide. The most commonly used malted grain in beer brewing is barley, though wheat, oat, rye and assorted other starches have also been used. But that’s another blog post.
Barley yields a strong starch content – about 65% - and the more starch there is, the more sugar is produced for the brewer’s yeast to ferment. However, yeast can’t go to work on the starch until it has been malted. Converting barley into malt involves soaking it, allowing it to partially germinate or sprout which helps to break down the hard starch into simpler carbohydrates, and then stopping that germination with heat. Malting itself is a real art and the specialists who have the expertise to carry out the process are called maltsters. Let’s take a moment to give thanks to that clever profession.
When the malted barley has been dried, it is then further heated, toasted or roasted to the brewer’s specification. Brewers can use a raw grain and malt it themselves, use an already malted grain, or they can add a malt extract which is a handy option but limits the amount of creative direction the brewer has.
What does malt do?
Ok so now you have the basics. Starch, sprouting, carbohydrates, kilning, yada yada yada. But I bet you’re wondering what all that actually means for you as a beer drinker, right? Well here it is in the proverbial nutshell: that final heating process is where all the colour and much of the taste of your beer comes from. So yeah, it means a LOT for youas a beer drinker.
What are the different types of malt?
Base malts are generally dried more quickly and at lower temperatures than other malts, hence they retain their light colour and are the main ingredient for the lightest coloured beers. Base malts have to be mashed when brewing in order to break down the complex sugars into simple sugars. All beers, however, even the darkest stouts, have a large billing of base malts in them.
Pale, Pilsner, Munich and Vienna are all base malts. Munich and Vienna malts are kilned dried at slightly higher temperatures than the former two and as such can give a deeper colour and a richer, fuller malt flavour.
Dark or roasted malts
These malts start out the same as base malts but are roasted for longer and give a distinctive array of flavours to the beer as well as darker colours. Unlike base malts they don’t generally need to be mashed. Rather they are steeped, like tea, to release their colours and flavours. Toasted malts (roasted for shorter amount of time) are said to give biscuity and, surprise surprise, toast-like flavours and aroma. Roasted malts (roasted for longer) can give intense bitter-sweet coffee and chocolatey flavours. Chocolate and Black Patent are specialty malts.
Crystal malts are a different and distinctive part of the brew recipe. Unlike regular malts which are dried and kilned, crystal malts are heated while still wet. This converts the sugars which are then caramelized at high temperatures during the roasting process. This type of malt gives a toffee or caramel-like sweetness to the beer and can also contribute to both colour and head retention. The darkest of these malts can give a dark fruit flavour, like plum or prune.
Fun fact you can use to impress your mates: Crystal malts have no diastatic power so can never be used as a base malt for brewing. Dia-what?! you ask. Diastatic. This is the ability of the enzymes in the malt to break down the starch into more easily fermentable sugars. This is significant because if a malt doesn’t have diastatic power, then used as a base, it would produce a very sweet beer with a very low alcohol level as the sugars would not be adequately fermented. In other words, you may as well be drinking Coke. Ugh. Another reason to be grateful to the maltsters of the world.
Now it’s time for you to drink some beers and have some fun identifying and enjoying all that malty goodness. Here’s a few to get you started:
Wicked Elf Pilsner – lovely floral Saaz hop aromas backed by a beautiful European Pilsner malt profile with hints of bread and hay.
Napoleone Longbow Extra Special Bitter uses pale, Munich, medium crystal and brown malts for a deliciously creamy toffee, caramel and honeycomb malt profile. Beautifully balanced by a lingering hop bitterness.