What Is The Role Of Malt In Beer?

Malt is an 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.

Definition

Malt is 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 say “Malt”. In most beer styles, the “malt” is barley, because its 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 accessible. 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.

Process

  1. A Maltster (a person or organization who makes malt) spreads the 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.
  2. 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). 
  3. The grain’s germination process is halted using heat (called green malt at this point). Then kiln-dried to a specific temperature to create enzymes and sugars and make them available for the brewing process. This is where the malt develops its signature flavors. Different roasting temperatures and times give you different malts.

When the Maltster is done with this process, he bags up the malt 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 an 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 more explanation around concentrating malt sugars and enzymes into a thick goo.

Varieties

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 only 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 less in modern brewing.

Six-row Malt – This is the kind of malt made from six-row grain. like two-row, it’s named because of the way 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.

Most malt is 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 thus generally compose the largest percentage of a given grain bill. These malts are kilned. Thus provide a lot of those lovely enzymes and fermentable sugars that help a beer become all that it can be.


Pale and Light Malts – These have fewer enzymes than the base malts (because they’re 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 different, yet very similar, process; caramel malts can vary in color from light to deep brown. These are used to impart some flavor, but 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. So, most of their starches and enzymes have been destroyed. These malts provide rich color and rich flavor, but very little sugar for the yeast to work on. Stouts, Porters, and various other darker beer styles need these malts in the grain bill. 

Other Grain Malts – Certain beer styles (Witbiers, Oatmeal Stout, etc) need 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.

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