The Mystery and Mastery of Malts
As a visual artist, I have always been excited by color. And even though the computer has mostly replaced physical media, I often make a wistful detour through the paint aisle in the art store on my way to buy the boring pads of paper and pencil leads I actually use to do my work. In the homebrew shop, however, there’s no wistfulness, and no need to hold back in the malt aisle. There I see a rainbow of possibilities, and fill my cart accordingly—until it groans.
In my classes and consultations with professional and amateur brewers, I sometimes see a reliance on the same old ingredients, beer after beer. Sure, crystal malt has a great range of flavors, but does it really need to go into every beer? Brewers before 1880 did well enough without it, and there are many seldom-used malts that contain thrilling flavor possibilities.
Historically, it was rare for brewers to have a large variety of malts from which to choose. Lagers often employed just a single malt. No wonder that the old German brewing books wasted no space on recipe formulation. Viennese beers were brewed from Vienna malt, Munich beers from Munich malt—period. British brewers, then, had to be content with pale, amber and brown malts.
Eventually, brewers (or rather, brewery accountants) realized they could brew more efficiently with multiple malts and began optimizing their recipes for the bottom line. Richardson’s groundbreaking 1788 treatise on the use of the hydrometer really got the ball rolling. Out was the old brown malt, replaced by a mix of pale and black. Brewers half a century later lamented that their beloved old porter was no more.
Crystal malt shows up in the English and German brewing books of the 1870s. It’s unclear what the impetus was, but crystal possesses characteristics that allow it to be used as a replacement for some expensive materials and processes—lightly-kilned malts and decoction mashing, to name a couple. Crystal malt subsequently took the brewing world by storm.
A Little Malt Chemistry
Barley is just about flavorless. All of the bready, malty, nutty, toasty and roasty components we associate with beer are the result of chemistry known as Maillard reactions. These chemical reactions develop malt flavor during the malting and brewing process, especially during malt kilning. Sugar combines with proteinaceous (or other nitrogen-bearing) material and water, in the presence of heat. The end products are small, powerfully aromatic molecules and a tarry goo that gives beer all of its shimmery color.
The important thing to note here is that every different combination of sugar, nitrogen, time, temperature, pH and dilution will create a different set of final products. This means that different malts of the same color can have very different aromatic profiles. This is most dramatically seen in a side-by-side tasting of crystal malts of similar color—say, 40 degrees Lovibond. Try this sometime; it’s quite startling.
But we’re not here to talk about crystal. (It serves us well, but it can’t do everything.) Using crystal malt has become a habit and acting out of habit is bad in any art form. This is especially true when there are several lesser-known malts deserving of much wider use. Here are a few malts to get your creative juices flowing:
Mild Ale Malt In Ye Olde England, there existed a definite pecking order to malt types and the beers from which they were made. At the top of this order sat pale ale malt and beers like October ale, the long-lived pale ales made in country house breweries. Down from that a notch was this mild ale malt, made from slightly thinner barley, and employed in beers intended for quicker consumption. It’s hard to find, but mild ale malt is still available. It is the British equivalent of Munich malt, displaying a color between 3.5 and 5.5 SRM, as well as a dry caramelly aroma. I can’t recommend it too highly as a base for all darker British ales.
Melanoidin, Dark Munich, Aromatic The terminology here is dizzying, as different maltsters use a variety of terms for these; I’m going to call them all melanoidin for now. This is essentially a base malt that has been kilned a little darker (20 to 35 degrees Lovibond), under moist conditions. This gives it a rich lusciousness, one very different from similarly colored Amber/biscuit, which is kilned dry. I absolutely love melanoidin malt. I think it adds a substantial yet soft toffeelike maltiness, which makes it really perfect as the showcase malt in dark Belgian ales, or as complexity enhancers in mid- to dark-colored beers from Oktoberfest to stout.
Brown Malt Meet the original porter malt. In the old days, much of this was torrefied (or puffed) by heating it rapidly over fires fueled by hornbeam wood. Today, it gets a more conventional kilning, but brown malt still offers a unique flavor profile, a chocolatey kind of mocha character. Useful in mild ales, stouts, and of course, porter, it can also be a smart choice in red ales and even strong dark Belgian ales where a small quantity can add a roasty counterpoint to the rich maltiness. The color is 50 to 60 SRM.
Röstmalz (Carafa) This is a range of very dark German malts. Exceptionally smooth, and this quality is so valued that these are offered in dehusked form for a smoother taste. Use wherever a really smooth roastiness is desired (Schwarzbier, anyone?). It’s also good as a subtle roasty kicker in a doppelbock, adding a gentle counterpart to the rich stickiness of Munich malt. Made in a number of different shades, Weyermann’s Carafa III, at around 500 to 550° L, is the most commonly available. As these very dark malts have a reddish cast, röstmalz is also great for adding a reddish depth to red ales.
So here’s a recipe to take advantage of these oft-neglected malts, all of which deserve fresh life in a fine new beer of your making.