Ingredient Spotlight: Malt

Austin Street Brewery

Austin Street Brewery

Ingredient Spotlight: Malt

It seems that of beer’s four main ingredients (water, malt, hops, and yeast), hops are certainly the hottest to talk about. Followed by yeast – people understand why Belgian-style beers have different dark fruit and spice notes (from the phenols), that Brettanomyces contributes funk. And water’s water, right? (We’ll save that conversation for another day!) But what about malt?

Today, we’re singing about the unsung hero and, besides water, largest contributor to the make up of beer by volume – malt.

The grain bill, the list of the malts to be used in brewing and their quantities, can vary significantly from style to style. Pale ales use pale malt and darker porters and stouts used roasted malts, both for color and flavor.

But, what is malt?

Malt is the name for the partially-germinated, dried cereal grains used to provide fermentable sugars for brewing. Many cereal grains can be used, but barley and wheat are most common because of their high starch content.

Cereal grains must be malted before they can be used for brewing in order to make the grain’s resources available to the brewer and to activate and unlock enzymes within the grains that convert complex starches into simple sugars.

When malting, barley or wheat grains are steeped until they have absorbed almost half of their weight in water. The grains are then drained and moved to a humid, warm room for germination. As the grain germinates (or prepares to grow a new plant), enzymes in the malt become active and accessible to the brewer.

Once the germination process reaches a certain point – when the enzymes and resources are available to the brewer, but have not yet started to be consumed by the new plant – the malt is moved to a kiln and dried, stopping the germination process and preserving the starch and enzyme profile for later use in brewing.

The roasting temperature of the kiln, water content of the grains, and interruption point during germination determine the type of malt (base, kilned, roasted, or kilned and roasted).

Base malts contribute bread-like flavors, while kilned malts, like Vienna and Munich malt, provide toasty or biscuity notes. Roasted malt, also called caramel or crystal malt, gives beers caramel-like flavors ranging from sweet honey to toffee. Finally, kilned and roasted malts can contribute flavors from burnt toast to bitter chocolate or coffee, characteristic of porters and stouts.

Generally, there are two categories of malts – those that need to be mashed (or steeped in hot water to activate the malt enzymes and start the conversion of complex starches into simple sugars) and those that do not. Basic light-colored malts like pale ale, Pilsner malt and malted wheat need to be mashed so that their sugars become accessible to yeast for fermentation into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Specialty malts, on the other hand, like caramel or black malts, do not need to be mashed as they are used for flavor and color only, not for their sugars or enzyme activity.

Tired of hops and yeast being the talk of the town? Learn more about your favorite beer’s malt foundation or give a new malt a try. Compare a wheat beer to a rye pale ale; or a blonde ale to a porter. The difference? The malt.

What grain bill do you prefer?