Beer 101: Malt

This is the second installment of Beer 101 (the first being Hops) and we’re talking about another crucial ingredient: Malt. Malt is kind of a vague umbrella term that covers a number of grains added to beer for body and flavor as well as to create the chemical reactions needed for the fermentation process.

So what is malt? Simply, it’s a grain that has been through the malting process. When it comes to beer, it is most commonly barley that is used. This “malting” means that the grains are wetted with water and allowed to germinate or bloom. This generates enzymes that break down sugar into simple sugar, which is used in the fermentation process (and eventually plays a role when the malt is put into the mash process).

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Germination is a determined sort of process and must be stopped by adding the malt to a kiln. Heating these grains up also toasts them slightly and creates flavors in the dried and cured malt. The malt can now be used as is, mostly in lighter-flavored beers like pilsners. The grain can also be roasted further, creating deeper, richer flavors, and turning it into specialty malts that are used to change the sweetness, color, body, and flavor of the final beer product.

Malt is then subjected to the mashing process, in which the malts are soaked in hot water. This process creates simple sugars like glucose, which are fermentable and create the alcohol in finished beer. It also creates unfermentable sugars like dextrine and melanoidins that flavor the beer. More interesting still, the mashing creates complex compounds that create nutty, roasted, toasted, and bitter flavors.

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While roasting does create flavor, it also destroys the starches that create fermentable sugars (the ones that become alcohol). Lightly roasted malts impart flavors like bread, biscuit, graham cracker, and some nuttiness. Medium malts will give flavors of molasses, toffee, brown sugar, or even burnt sugar. Dark roasted malts create coffee, chocolate, and some deep fruit flavors. While barley is usually the brewer’s choice of grain for malting, wheat, oat, rice, and rye can also be used. Each of these grains would create a unique flavor profile.

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Base malts, generally those grains which have only been very lightly toasted, can make up up to 100% of the malts used in a beer. This results in a light beer with a crisp, dry finish. Darker malts, which have been roasted for longer and at different temperatures, are called speciality malts. Crystal or caramel malts are the next rung up in the ladder, producing amber color and flavors like toffee and caramel. Toasted malts are next and bring, well, toasted flavors like bread and biscuit. Roasted malts are usually pretty dark and bring roasted, coffee, and chocolate flavors to the table.

Malts are a huge and widely varied ingredient in beer making. The kilning process can generate an incredible selection of colors and flavors from the basic grains that started out so plain. Beer is an art and a science, both at the same time. I suppose that all food and drink creation really is. Experimentation and research work together to help the brewer choose which malts and in what ratios to use them. The results of these experiments, it turns out, tend to be delicious and good for enjoying in a tall pint glass.

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