Let's Talk Malt

Of the four basic ingredients that go into making that finely crafted pint that is ostensibly in your hand right now, I will argue that malt is the most underrated. Sure, water gets mightily overlooked, but the coaxed grain that goes into the brewhouse isn’t as sexy as hops, or as mystical as yeast, and most beer drinkers these days pay little mind to its contributions in the brewing process. It is unassuming, yet by no means prosaic or underserving of its time in the spotlight. In fact, most of the active time spent in the brewing process is devoted to making sure malt is well treated, all for the goal of producing a fine beer. With that said, let’s take a closer look at what I consider to be the soul of the beer.

Actually, let’s take a step back and see how malt is produced.

As most of you are well aware, malt is “somehow related to barley" Indeed it is, as malt is in fact shorthand for malted barley, which undergoes a process that produces a raw material responsible for feeding yeast, potentially adding color to beer, and evoking flavors ranging from dough and flour to coffee and roast.  How does this happen? Let’s break it down:

  1. Barley, determined to be of the right size and condition, heads to the malthouse, where the maltster* will measure a few different specifications of the malt which ultimately determines weight, viability, protein content, readiness to convert*, and even toxicity. The last refers to a compound known as Deoxynivalenol (or DON, for short), which indicates a fungus known as Fusarium being present in the barley. While this will cause the unfortunate gushing in a beer, more importantly, DON is a potent vomitoxin that we never want to encounter. As such, DON levels in beer should be below the 0.1% threshold.
  2. Once the proper barley with the acceptable specifications is received, the maltster will then submerge the barley in water, known as steeping. The idea is to both clean the barley while concurrently bringing the moisture level – usually at 12% - up to about 48%, for germination. Notably during this step,  the barley will also undergo a process called air rests. This is where the water is drained and the barley is allowed to respirate and receive oxygen, since there is a percentage of barley that could essentially drown if this does not occur.
  3. After steeping, the maltster will take the barley off the water, thereby beginning the germination process. As part of this, the individual barley grain will begin to sprout, the purpose being to expose the endosperm (an energy storage reserve within each grain to jumpstart the growth process) to water so that modification can take place. What is modification? In short, taking the components of the endosperm and turning it into useful starch to be used later in the brewing process. It is a cruel way to trick barley into thinking it is time to grow, while in actuality we are exploiting their starch reserves for our own selfishly delicious purposes. Germination typically takes about 48 hours.
  4. After germination, the maltster will begin the drying process. This “free drying” or “withering” stage removes the beginnings of the shoot and rootlet*, along with the moisture that has accumulated in the grain thus far.
  5. Once all moisture is removed, the barley is then heated – or kilned – at various temperatures and time periods in order to produce the spectrum of malts and aforementioned flavors that are available to brewers today.

Malt products will typically fall into two distinct categories – Base and Speciality. Simply put, Base Malts will make up the primary composition of the grains that go into the beer’s recipe (also known as Grain Bill, or Grist). They will typically be high in the enzyme content* specific to converting starches into sugars for use in fermentation, a process by which the sugars consumed by the yeast to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide*. In contrast, Specialty Malts lack the enzymes to convert starch, but offer color and flavor that provide character for particular beer styles. Some common examples of malts include:

Pils Malt – a base malt that is found in lagers. Of note is that Pils malt has traditionally lower modification compared to other malts, and thus can possess a component called Dimethyl Sulfide – DMS – that expresses itself as cooked corn. Thus, some lagers with a Pils malt base may have notes of corn, which is acceptable and may even add some additional depth to the beer.

Munich Malt – another base malt with a unique flavor profile. There is a chemical process known as a Maillard Reaction, wherein a sugar that comes into contact with an amino in the presence of heat will produce caramelization of varying degrees, ranging from soft browning to burnt and acrid. Munich malts undergo such a reaction, the visual impact being referred to as Melanoidins. Flavor compounds attributed to Melanoidins are commonly described as whole wheat bread. Think about this the next time you try a Bock beer, and understand why many refer to this and associated styles as “liquid bread”.

Crystal Malt – we’ve spoken previously about the ability to modulate time and temperature in kilning to produce a malt with intended results. Specialty Crystal malts also utilize moisture, and “stew” the starches inside the grain to the point that they become sugars prior to even entering the brewhouse. This lends a glassy and crystalline texture to the kernel, and contributes both flavor and color to the finished beer.

Black Malt – pushing the boundaries of kilning time for malt, Black malt will undergo this process for the longest of all the malts mentioned in this article, and its addition will produce a beer that may exhibit qualities such as roasty, burnt, dry, and bitter-like. Specialty Black Malt additions are typically found in Stouts and Porters. Note that it takes only a few minutes to go from pale to overly burnt and unusable, thus the skill of the maltster’s roasting abilities are in full display here.

I sincerely hope that this little overview of malt will elevate your appreciation of its impact and importance in making our favorite beverage. It is certainly a favorite subject of mine, and I truly do express my gratitude to every single maltster that I meet because I understand their importance within the beer making process.  It is my humble wish that you do the same.

- James 

*Re: the very important person responsible for turning barley into malt for brewing

*There is a fun specification referred to as Germinative Energy (or GE), which relates to when the barley can actually be used in the malting process. Different from viability (re: Germinative Capacity, or GC), barley with low germinative energy can be stored until it comes out of dormancy. The reason for low GE is due to Mother Nature’s ingenius method for keep barley grains from sprouting on the stalk prematurely.

*Known as accrospire and chit, respectively

*Referred to as Diastatic Power

*Components that are more commonly known and expressed as alcohol and carbonation

*Think the difference between a hamburger patty that has been placed on the heating surface for a few seconds, versus one that has been burnt to the crisp.

Styles and ScienceJames Tai