So you want to know more about malt? You've come to the right place.
As we've discussed, malt is a terrifically important part of brewing beer. Malt adds color, flavor, and sugar content to unfermented beer. After water, it's the most common ingredient in beer. Malt is the reason that all the beer in the world is a lovely shade of gold. Malt is the reason that beer contains carbohydrates and gluten. Malt is crucial stuff.
Malt is essentially the toasted version of any cereal grain. This includes barley, wheat, oat, rye, etc. The full name would be "Malted Barley" or "Malted Wheat", if we chose to say it that way. We don't choose to say it that way, so in beer vernacular we just say "Malt". In most beer styles, the "malt" is barley, because it's relatively high enzyme content makes it conducive for brewing. Pretty easy so far.
We toast the cereal grain because we need to access the lovely sugars and enzymes within the grain. These sugars and enzymes form the sugary, substantive backbone of all beer. In their raw version (picked straight from the field), the starches in these cereal grains are not very acessible. Brewers sometimes use unmalted grain in their beer, but it's a small percentage of the total grain used. We won't get too far into the specific enzymes and chemicals we're trying to create in this process, but suffice it to say that it's important.
Malted barley and select other grains are also used as the base to make American Whisky (or Whiskey...if you're from Scotland/Ireland). It undergoes essentially the same process that the malt in beer undergoes in order to be used to make whisky. Whisky (or whiskey) is delicious and has an entirely separate, and fascinating, history. Learn more about Whiskey!
(Imagine we're explaining this to you in the same accent Joe Pesci has in that famous court room scene in My Cousin Vinny. It's funnier. Two yoots your honor...yoots.)
Anyway. Malting itself is a somewhat complex process, but we've made it extremely simple here:
- A Maltster (a person or organization who makes malt) spreads the freshly picked grains out in a giant warehouse to a depth of about 5 inches. These warehouses of malt are enormous and custom built to make the malt.
- Over the next 6-8 weeks, the grain is air-dried and then sprinkled (or sometimes inundated) with water to allow the grain to germinate (aka - sprout).
- The grain's germination process is halted using heat (called green malt at this point), and then kiln-dried to a specific temperature in order to create those lovely enzymes and sugars and make them available for the brewing process. This is where the malt develops it's signature flavors. Different roasting temperatures and times give you different malts, depending on the amount of heat and caramelization the grain undergoes.
When the Maltster is done with this process, he bags up the malt (or if you can order enough malt, sticks it on a truck or train in huge amounts) and sells it to breweries, homebrew shops, and bakers, who use it to make their beer and bread. We won't get into extract brewing, which is a perfectly acceptable way to brew a beer. When you first get started homebrewing, you might make a beer using an extract, as it's easier to make the wort. Extract brewing involves a little more explanation around concentrating those malt sugars and enzymes into a thick goo (consistency of honey). Read more about it here.
Over 90% of the malt made around the globe is used specifically to brew beer. That's millions of tons of malt every year. The rest of the malt is used to make whisky, baked goods, and certain specialty dishes. The EU is the world's largest producer of malt (trust me, the Europeans love beer as much as we do), followed somewhat closely by America.
In the last step, we learned how it was made. In commercial use, most brewers use a specific kind of malt to make a specific kind of beer. Malt varieties generally come from how long, and at what temperature, the grain has been kiln-dried. Some malts are easy to understand (e.g- pilsner malts make...pilsner beer), but there are hundreds of kinds of malt available. We'll break it down to the big categories that most breweries use:
Two-row Malt - This is the kind of malt made from two-row grain. It's called "two-row" because of the way the grain is stacked on the stock of the plant. Europeans use two-row malt almost exclusively in their beer, rarely, if ever, incorporating American six-row barley into the grain bill. Six-row barley can be a little rough in the brewing process, so it's used noticeably less in modern brewing.
Six-row Malt - This is the kind of malt made from six-row grain. Just like two-row, it's aptly named because of the way to the grain grows on the end of the stack. Six-row grain (barley) is grown in America, and gives some beers a signature flavor, aroma, color.
A Grain Bill (sometimes called a "malt bill") is a list of all the grain malts and adjuncts used in a specific beer recipe (specifically, all the stuff that is put into a beer recipe, prior to any hop additions, to make the Wort). Every beer has a specific grain bill. This is fun brewing terminology, so if you want to impress a brewer on your next brew tour, raise your hand and ask about the grain bill on a certain beer they brew. You might not get that top-secret information, but you'll get an appreciative nod, we promise.
So. Most malt is essentially two-row, or six row. With these buckets established, we can create the following malts:
Base Malts - Base malts are used as the most common, and therefore generally compose the largest percentage of a given grain bill. These malts are lightly kilned, and thus provide a lot of those lovely enzymes and fermentable sugars that help a beer become all that it can be (or give the yeast something to chow down during fermentation).
Pale and Light Malts - These have less enzymes than the base malts (because they're essentially heated longer), but impart a robust malt aroma and flavor to the beer. Generally these are kilned at higher temperatures for a shorter amount of time.
Caramel Malts - Roasted using a slightly different, yet very similar, process; caramel malts can vary in color from light to deep brown, and are used to impart some flavor, but mostly color, to a beer.
Dark and Roasted Malts - These malts have been kilned (or actually roasted) for a longer duration than light and caramel malts, and therefore, most their starches and enzymes have been destroyed. These malts provide the rich color and rich flavor, but very little sugar for the yeast to work on. Stouts, Porters, and various other darker beer styles require these malts in the grain bill.
Other Grain Malts - Certain beer styles (Witbiers (wheat beers), Oatmeal Stout, Rye Pale Ale's, etc) require alternative grains, or grains other than barley, to be used in the mash. They impart signature mouthfeel, aroma, flavor, and sugar content to their respective beers.
And that's basically it! As you can see, malt is a vital and interesting part of brewing beer. Now that you're well educated on Malt, go check out our page on Hops.