A closer look at beer: malt

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First Posted: 2/4/2014

All of us who enjoy drinking beer are quite familiar with the core ingredients that go into the making of it: water, hops, malted barley, and yeast. However, what is it that these individual ingredients really do for the beer? Over time we will be taking an in-depth look at each of these ingredients, starting first with malted barley.

Malted barley, or simply malt, lays the foundation for the beer in a variety of ways, beginning with flavor, body, head retention, and, of course, color. Barley is the most common type of malted grain, but there are a wide variety of others used in the beer-making process, such as wheat and rye.

The process for turning barley into malt begins when the maltster soaks the highest grade barley in water for about 24 hours. This rehydration activates enzymes within the barley, allowing the barley to sprout rootlets. At a certain point, the maltster stops the process by applying heat. At this point, the flavorless grains are ready to head off to the kiln.

The kilning process is truly where the magic happens, and this is what imparts the flavors from the barley and where barley becomes malt. The degrees at which the barley is roasted impart a wide range of flavors and colors, from the light golden pilsner malt (commonly used in pilsners and lagers) to the black roasted malt (commonly used in stouts and porters).

The color of the malt is measured in degrees Lovibond in the United States. For examples, pale Pilsner malt, used as base malt in beers such as pilsners, lagers, and pale ales, generally ranges from 1.5 to 15 degrees Lovibond, whereas roasted malts, generally used in beers like stouts and porters, have ranges from 350 to 600 degrees Lovibond.

The combinations of malts are seemingly endless, and this chemistry is where brewers develop beer styles and flavors and can influence the color of the finished beer. The choice of malts is extremely important to brewers, and they must know how the kilning process works and opens the flavors locked within the grains, as this is the key to creating a great base for the beer, whether it be a more malt-forward style (such as an Oktoberfest) or a hop-forward style (such as an IPA). The malt gives the beer its balance, body, and apparent sweetness.

If you are interested in examining all the wonders that malts can bring to a beer, there are many different styles to try, each highlighting the malt in a different way. One of the best styles to try is the Scotch Ale/Wee Heavy. The rich, toffee-like malt flavors never end, imparting an almost port-like quality and having a very rich and complex malty aroma. Some of the best Scotch Ale/Wee Heavy beers to try are Traquair House, Scottish Style Ale; Odell Brewing Company, 90 Schilling; Founders, Dirty Bastard; and Thirsty Dog Brewing Company, Wulver.

Another great style to examine for fans of malty beer is the English Brown Ale, a style popularized throughout the world by Newcastle Brown Ale; the flavor profile in that particular beer is not as complex as what is achieved in many more within the style. The flavor of English Brown Ales is toasty, nutty, with a touch of caramel malt backed with just a slight hint of hopping. The aroma is very malty and hides any hopping and has a wonderfully sweet and clean finish.

Do not confuse these with American Brown Ales, which have a bit more hop presence in the aroma and flavor. Some of the best English Brown Ales to try are Samuel Smith, Nut Brown Ale; Abita Brewing Company, Turbodog; and Bell’s Brewery, Bell’s Best Brown.

One final style to examine for a true showcase of malt profile is the barley wine; it’s best to find some with a bit of age on it, as fresh ones can be a bit overwhelming at first, but they are definitely worth seeking out. The high malt backbone is also balanced with hops, but as the barley wine ages, the hop presence all but disappears; this is especially true in the more aggressively hopped American versions. Some of the best barley wines to try are Breaker Brewing Company, Abandoned Mine Barley Wine; Sierra Nevada, Bigfoot; Weyerbacher, Insanity; and Anchor Brewing, Old Foghorn.

Malt is an extremely important ingredient in the beer-making process and deserves its moment in the sun that hops have been enjoying for quite some time now.