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Malt 101: The Soul of Beer

Jan 08, 2016 Comments (1)


Today’s post is brought to you by Ben, the fearless leader of the Ninkasi Quality Team. In the first of a four-part series about the critical brewing ingredients, he covers malt. (Spoiler alert: the next three will feature yeast, hops, and water.) As a former maltster and current beer quality ninja, he knows his stuff in the malt department.

 There’s an old adage in the brewing world that you can make bad beer from good ingredients, but you can’t make good beer from bad ingredients. This is certainly the case with one of our most important ingredients: malt.

Malt is the soul of beer. The most visible impact is on the beer's color. It also greatly influences the body, the flavor, and perhaps most importantly, offers the biggest contribution of sugar, which is converted into alcohol through fermentation. When it comes to beer: malt matters. A lot.  

Today, we’re going to find out why this little grain is such a big deal.

So, what the heck is malt? Malt is the grain used in beer. Technically, malting is a process that can be used with any number of grains. But when brewers talk about “malt”, they usually mean malted barley. If they’re referring to a different malted grain, it could be wheat, oats, rice, rye or corn, which are also called “adjuncts”. These can all bring different flavors and bodies to the beer. But since malted barley is the main fermentable grain in most modern beers, we’ll stick with covering barley in this post.

It all starts at the farm. Barley is not the most agronomical crop for farmers to grow. In fact, most just use it as a rotator crop for feed grain. But there are a few farms out there that have been growing malting barley for generations as a labor of love for the beer industry. These farmers continue to fight through a myriad of challenging climate changes to provide brewers and maltsters with the barley they need to make the delicious beer in your glass. We’re a big fan of these farmers.

So why barley and not a grain that’s a bit easier to grow? Barley kernels are grass seeds that are packed full of everything that brewer’s yeast needs to make the beer we love. Barely provides the perfect amount of nutrients and enzymes to ferment beer (a very critical step in the brewing process, without it, we’d never get beer!). It’s hard to refuse this package of brewing joy.

The role of the maltster (aka the trickster): After the barley has been harvested, it goes to the maltster for the next critical step in the process: the game of fooling the barley. (Editor’s note: “game” and “fooling” were probably not words you expected to hear in a blog post about brewing ingredients, but hear this former maltster out.) You see, the starches contained in the barley kernels straight from the field are not quite ready for fermentation so we need to malt the barley to get them there.

Enter: the maltster.

First, this maltster fools the barley into thinking it’s going to live a full life in the field so it will sprout and produce the right balance of starches for brewing. To do this, these malting tricksters will nurture these rich little barley kernels into growing a lifetime supply of food. Then they’ll kill the grain and send it off to the brewer to steal that food and make beer out of it. Sounds like a great suspense flick, right? Let me break it down by the steps of malting and you’ll see why this part of the brewing process is so similar to a crime novel:

Steeping: The first step is to steep the barley. This is where the tricking begins. Here, the grain is soaked, aerated and drained in order to hydrate and invigorate the kernel to start growing. This stage is similar to making tea: when you put the bag of tea into hot water, it releases all of the great flavor from the leaves. The steeping process does a similar thing by using hot water to help the kernel of grain release the critical enzymes and starches that we need for brewing. During the steeping process, barley is hydrated to about 42% water and may spend anywhere from 12 hours to a few days steeping.

Germination: The germination stage is full of more trickery. This is where the maltster will give the barley all of the water, temperature and air flow it needs to start sprouting and developing the necessary enzymes for converting its starches into fermentable sugars. This stage has to be closely monitored because grain that is over or under-modified will be problematic for the brewer. In this stage, the rootlets start to grow and tangle, so the barley must be turned regularly in order to prevent heat pockets and uneven growth.  Germination can take anywhere from three to five days

Kilning: This is where that baby barley gets murdered. Don’t cry over it though because it’s also the stage that determines much of your tasty beers’ beautiful color and flavor. Kilning cuts the enzymatic growth, which leaves the grain in an ideal state for fermentation. But just as importantly, kilning will put the barley through what’s known as the Maillard (pronounced “my yard”) reaction. In this reaction, heat and moisture will determine the color and flavor of the malt. I like to compare it to sweating an onion versus caramelizing an onion versus burning an onion. If you sweat an onion, you do it at a lower heat and retain most of the onion’s color and moisture while adding some mild new flavor. This would be most like a brewer’s pale malt that gives beer a nice golden color. If you caramelize, you may add more moisture and heat to develop richer flavors and deeper reddish color. This is most like crystal malts that give red ales their beautiful color. If you burn an onion, you will create some harsher toasty flavor and dry that onion out by losing most of its moisture. This would be like roasted malts that give dark beers their color.

So there you have it. Barley and malting are certainly very interesting topics and can sometimes take backseat to hops in the romantic discussion of beer making. We as brewers always have reverence for the grain and what it brings us. Now that you know a bit about the importance of malt and barley we hope you will too.

Comments (1)

  1. Kensington Liquor Cellar:
    Feb 25, 2016 at 10:21 AM

    Awesome article. Can we post this on our website (with a link back to this page)? We are building a Beer101 section.


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