You can’t make beer without malt
It may seem obvious, but without malt, you cannot have beer. In a world that is obsessed with hops and funky yeast strains, it’s easy to forget the crucial role that malt plays. Malt is to beer what honey is to mead, or what apple is to cider. Without malt, there is no beer.
When we talk about malt, we are mostly referring to malted barley. Malted barley is barley that has been steeped at specific temperatures under strict conditions by a maltster to induce sprouting. The grains are then dried before further growth occurs. This process develops sugars and starches that we, as brewers, extract when making beer. This extraction is crucial because we rely on these sugars to provide yeast with the necessary food to convert the sweet wort into a drier alcoholic beverage.
The Grain Bill
As you know, not all beers are exclusively made with barley. We often use other grains such as wheat, oats, or rye in beer recipes. However, even in these cases, we only use a small amount of these additional grains. The majority of the grain bill consists of base malts. The combination of grains used, known as the “grain bill,” is similar to selecting a flour mix for baking a cake. In beer making, barley is the main ingredient. Even wheat beers and oatmeal stouts rely on a solid base of barley malt.
Now, can we mix and match any random combination of malts to make beer? Not exactly. Not all malts produce sufficient levels of important enzymes that convert starches into sugars. The enzymatic quality is significant and explains the primary difference between “base malts” and “specialty malts.” Additionally, there are non-barley grains like wheat and oats that fall into the three major malt categories:
- Base Malts
- Specialty Malts
- Additional Brewing Grains
1. Base Malts
Think of base malts as the primary source of sugars in beer. They provide starches that get converted into sugars by enzymes during the mashing process. Importantly, base malts also contain enzymes that can convert the starches of other malts, including those without their own enzymes. Base malts typically have a pale color.
You can’t have beer without malt, but to be precise, you can’t have beer without a base malt. To fully utilize the magic of base malts, they need to be mashed. Through the mashing process, starches are released and eventually converted into sugars, which the yeast will consume.
Consequently, the mash is a critical step in the brewing process. Why do mash temperatures matter so much during mashing?
The importance of the mash
As you know, the key process during the mash is the conversion of starches to sugars, facilitated by enzymes, specifically alpha amylase and beta amylase.
Alpha amylase is most active at temperatures between 150-160˚F. In this range, it converts starches into complex sugars, which are more difficult for yeast to ferment. A mash in this temperature range will result in a sweeter beer with a fuller body.
Beta amylase is most active at temperatures between 130-150˚F. At these temperatures, it converts starches into simple sugars that yeast can easily ferment. A mash in this temperature range will produce a drier beer with a lighter body.
The mash temperature plays a substantial role in determining the characteristics of the final beer. Warmer mashes create sweeter beers, while cooler mashes yield drier beers.
2. Specialty Malts
While it is possible to make beer with 100% base malts, doing so may result in a one-dimensional flavor profile. This is where specialty malts come in and make a significant difference. They contribute additional flavors, colors, or body to your beer, adding interest. The market offers a wide variety of specialty malts to explore for a lifetime. The combinations are virtually endless.
Specialty malts are typically added to the mash with the base malt. However, they do not need to be mashed themselves, as they can release their colors and flavors through a simple steep. Most specialty malts lack enzymes, which is why they rely on the enzymes from base malts to convert starches into sugars. To simplify the process using the brew-in-a-bag method, we add them to the mash.
Crystal or caramel malts are among the most popular specialty malts. Maltsters achieve crystal malts by roasting moist barley before drying it. This process caramelizes the sugars, adding body to your beer. As the name suggests, caramel malt imparts toffee flavors. However, excessive use can result in an overly tannic beer. Caramel malts cover a wide spectrum of caramelization and can lend both light and dark colors to your beer.
Dark malts are also quite popular. They add deep brown or black colors to your beer and can contribute smokiness, richness, sweetness, or even coffee-like flavors. Due to their potency in changing both color and flavor, they are used sparingly.
Specialty malts can be steeped or mashed and represent a smaller percentage of the grain bill. Examples include crystal malt, chocolate malt, biscuit malt, brown malt, black barley, chocolate malt, and roasted barley.
3. Additional Brewing Grains
With additional brewing grains, you can mix and match non-barley grains to give your beer a unique character. For instance, wheat malt can be used in non-wheat beers in small quantities to enhance head formation and retention. Oats can add creaminess, while rye can contribute a creamy head, a dry finish, and a hint of spice to darker beers or a minty taste to lighter beers. You can even add unmalted barley to introduce a slight sour taste.
Additional brewing grains must be mashed with a base malt as they lack enzymes. Examples include unmalted barley, flaked oats, flaked wheat, and even rice.