Beer drinkers love to celebrate their brewers. They deserve the attention — brewers are the end of the line for ingredients that have started in a field and passed through many hands to arrive to your glass. For consistent beer without flaws, we look to what happens in the brew house, from sanitation standards to sensory evaluation. But producing good beer starts farther up the supply chain.
From barley selection to malting control, it is the maltster who determines the foundational quality of a beer. Barley selection is a key moment in a beer’s life. Beer starts in the field, and the maltster must decide whether a grain load is suitable for brewing. The barley must be structurally sound and disease-free.
Lodging is a phenomenon that describes the barley stalk bending over and leads to an inconsistent yield, of which the maltster must be aware. If there is too much moisture during harvest, barley can be susceptible to fungal growth that causes “scab” (fusarium head blight). Scab produces vomitoxin, which sounds like it could end all of humanity but just means that the barley is unfit for brewing and animal feed. An outbreak of scab in the 1990s threw many growers into bankruptcy and led to dark days in the brewing industry. Meticulous selection dictates what the maltster, and ultimately the brewer, will be up against.
In the case of unexpected weather, like the heavy rain and moisture during the 2014 harvest that disrupted the malting industry in many states, maltsters have to accept damaged barley and make technical compensations. In the case of pre-harvest sprouting damage (PHSD), moisture causes the kernels to begin germinating before they’ve even reached the steeping tank. Barley with PHSD can be malted but must be noted and isolated as it will behave differently in the malthouse and diminish the shelf life of the malt.
Once the barley is in the hands of the maltsters, they make decisions on steeping and kilning based on the consistency of the barley. Curing barley malt at higher temperatures reduces S-methylmethionine, which is a precursor to Dimethyl Sulfate (DMS). If a maltster fails to do this properly, DMS shows up before the beer is brewed and its accompanying “creamed corn” off-flavor is detectable in the finished beer. Low barley protein can result from a variety of factors including nitrogen levels in the soil (too much reduces protein). With lower protein, the malt must be fully modified or it produces complications for the brewer. Undermodified malt reduces extract recovery, meaning there is less fermentable sugar and lower gravity. How the maltster processes the grain determines whether you get cloudy, heavy, poorly attenuated beer.
Protein levels are a critical point but one that has begun to evolve for craft brewers. In the 2014 Brewers Association report titled “Malting Barley Characteristics for Craft Brewers,” the committee (comprised of veteran brewers, brewery owners and production managers) and clearly indicates the desire for lower protein levels overall in base malt for craft beer. Here, the maltster must take care to control the process and reduce enzyme loss through kilning temperature and airflow control. Large craft brewers want low levels of free amino acids (FAN) to improve flavor stability as they increase their distribution globally. Considering these mounting factors, the maltster walks a fine line between delivering consistent malt for all brewers they supply, while courting brewers and securing contracts.
Ultimately, quality beer comes from consistent malt, which comes from uniform barley. You can have bad beer from good malt, but you cannot have good beer from bad malt. So the next time you applaud the brewer for a job well done, don’t forget the maltster on whom your beer depends.
Erika Bolden is a freelance writer based in Southern California. Read more at erikabolden.com. Some information contained in this article was obtained during a trip to Idaho sponsored and funded by Anheuser-Busch. The brewery had no control or oversight on any content contained within.