With all the hubbub these days surrounding hyper-hoppy beers, it’s easy enough to forget about the humble kernel of malt, even though it’s been the foundation of beer for more than 10,000 years. Sure, hops have the luster of über coolness, but it’s important to keep in mind that without malt, there would be no beer at all. As a beer taster or even a casual drinker, it’s a good idea to get to know it better.
Malt is the sprouted and kilned seeds of barley or sometimes of other grasses like wheat, rye or oats. It’s a perfect thing to brew with, containing ample starch as well as the enzymes to convert it into sugars, proteins for body, foam and yeast nutrition, and plenty of great flavors to delight the palate.
Malt is a chameleon, capable of becoming a huge range of utterly different products depending on the way it is malted and kilned. These days a good homebrew shop will have a hundred or more malts, and the pros have access to even more choices. In a recipe, a brewer can pick and choose for more than just the right flavor, color and texture. Understanding the basics of how malt is made helps us understand both how its flavors are created and how they find their way into the glass.
Here’s a quick overview. Seed-grade barley is moistened and allowed to sprout, during which time the plant readies itself for growth by liberating enzymes and freeing its starchy food reserve, both of which are essential for brewing. After a period of growth—the whole process takes a week or so—the grains are heated to stop growth and develop flavor. It starts slowly, by driving off water, but as the temperature climbs, flavor develops and the malt starts to pick up color. The maltster can stop at any desired color and flavor, or transfer the malt onto a drum roaster, where the malt can be made as dark as any coffee. Every little detail affects the final flavor.
This chemistry lesson also applies to all browned, baked or roasted foods, so it’s worth paying attention. At the heart of most browning, whether it’s the kilning of malt or a steak on the grill, is a tangle of chemistry called the Maillard reaction. The particulars are too complex for most of us mere mortals to understand, but when a mix of carbohydrates and nitrogen-bearing material such as proteins is heated, color and aroma develop. Seems pretty simple, right? However, every set of starting chemicals, depending on its moisture level, pH (acidity/alkalinity) and of course time, temperature and other variables, gives rise to a different end product, and therefore flavors. All malt flavor derives from Maillard browning and a simpler reaction involving the caramelization of sugar.
Maltsters create specific flavors by controlling the conditions of the kilning and the uncured malt that goes into it. A little more or less moisture, for example, can mean the difference between a dry and toasty malt and one dripping with rich caramel and cookie flavors, even though the two malts may be exactly the same color.
Maillard’s color products are collectively called melanoidins, a complex, brownish goo that leans toward reddish or yellowish hues. It is devoid of aroma but quite bitter, an important element of balance in darker beers. Small molecules known as heterocyclics form the familiar range of aromas from biscuit to caramel to espresso. There are hundreds of them in beer, and they’re extremely potent, with thresholds in the low parts-per-billion or below.
Malt color is determined by brewing a tiny test batch and then measuring its light-to-dark value. In the United States, a scale known as degrees Lovibond—after a 19th century English brewing scientist—is used. Malt color starts at a ghostly white at a little over 1 degree, and tops out at a very espressolike 500 degrees Lovibond. The European scale (EBC) measures about double the Lovibond one.
Interestingly, there is a gap from about 90 to 200 degrees Lovibond, between which malt is generally not made. Harsh campfire aromas are created during roasting, but below certain temperatures those unpleasant flavors stay with the malt, tainting any beer brewed with them. At higher temperatures, a lot of those pungent volatiles are driven off, sometimes aided by debittering techniques. The counterintuitive result is that malt actually becomes more mellow and delicate at the high end of the color scale, despite the abundant color.
You can think of the flavors of malt as a spectrum, but it’s important to not let your eyes lead your thoughts too much. A particular color, either of malt or of beer, does not necessarily equate to a particular flavor. At the lighter end, flavors lean toward bread, crackers or the comforting flavor of a malted milk ball once the chocolate is sucked off. Middle-colored malts exhibit an especially wide range of flavors from toasty to cookie to caramel and even raisin and burnt sugar. At the dark end, malt ranges from toasty to roasty to coffee and then bittersweet chocolate as it gets darker.
The vocabulary for this huge range of flavor helpfully follows the flavors we already know from food. This makes malt a lot easier to grasp than hops, whose spiky aromatic oils can sometimes be a bit hard to pin down flavorwise. The parallels to food are one reason beer is such a natural partner at the table, as there are dozens of easily exploited connecting points.
The best brewers know that sight and language are poor substitutes for actual tasting, so it’s common to see them munching on any malt they have lying around, trying to reinforce and add detail to their internalized model of the world of malt flavor. This is a habit every taster should adopt. Pop into a homebrew shop and buy a small quantity of each of the following: a German lager or pilsner malt; an English pale ale malt; biscuit/amber/Victory malt; Dark Munich/melanoidin/aromatic malt; three or four caramel/crystal malts, but do try to get at least two different ones that have the same color; Chocolate malt; and Black malt, especially a debittered type such as Carafa III.
You can either simply sample them by chewing them or crush them lightly and make “tea” from hot (165° F) water, straining the liquid through a coffee filter after a few minutes’ steep. Taste the lager malt, then the pale. Note the clean, white-bread maltiness of the first. The pale ale malt will be sharper, with more crisp, crackery notes. Think of these flavors the next time you taste the clean maltiness of a pilsner or the hop-accentuated crispness of a pale ale.
Next, compare the biscuit and aromatic, two malts that measure in the 25-30 range. Quite different, right? The biscuit has a sharp toastiness that makes it a foundation of brown ale; the melanoidin tastes of cookies, with a sweet, rich toastiness. The difference is the moisture level during kilning—melanoidin is kilned moist.
Move on to the caramel malts, from palest to darkest. These are quite different, made by a special process that brings more sugar than starch to the kilning process, as you can tell from the crunchy, glassy texture. At the pale end (20° L) you’ll find sweet caramelly notes, then going toward raisins (40° L) or even prunes (60° L). As the malt gets darker (80° L), the flavors run toward the burnt sugar or toasted marshmallow flavors prominent in red ales. All caramel malts bring some sweetness to the beer as well. Meditate on these flavors as you drink an American pale ale, as chewy mid-colored caramel malts are an indispensable part of the style.
Finally, the dark malts. They are not much fun to taste by themselves, so you can either sip the “tea” or let it cool down and add it to a neutral pale beer such as a pilsner or blond ale. See how the chocolate malt isn’t all that chocolatey? To me it’s misnamed, coming across more like diner coffee, with a sharp bite and piercing roastiness. The black malt should be deeper, yet mellower and display a lingering chocolatiness. If you’ve picked up a roasted barley to compare, you’ll find the kind of pleasant pungency that Guinness revolves around.
After repeated practice, you can learn to deconstruct a beer sip-by-sip, a valuable skill for brewers and enthusiasts alike. Your newfound malty awareness won’t make you forget about hops, but it will give you something else just as fantastic to enjoy about beer.