two hands holding a bunch of malt grains

Understanding Malt: The Soul of Your Beer

You can’t make beer without malt

It’s so obvious to say, but without malt, you can’t have beer. In a world obsessed with hops and funky yeast strains, it’s easy to forget how crucial this ingredient is. Malt is to beer what honey is to mead; what apple is to cider. Without malt, you can’t make beer.

Malted Barley

When we talk about malt, we’re mostly talking about malted barley—barley that a maltster has steeped at specific temperatures under strict conditions to get the grains to sprout. The grains are then dried before further growth occurs. This process develops sugars and starches that we—as brewers—extract when we make beer. That extraction is crucial because we rely on these sugars to give the yeast the food it needs to convert the sweet wort into a drier alcoholic nectar.

The Grain Bill

As you know, not all beers are made exclusively with barley. We often make beers using other grains (wheat beers, oatmeal stouts, rye ales, etc.). But even in those recipes, we use a small amount of those additional grains. The bulk of our grains will typically be base malts. The combination of grains you use—what’s called the “grain bill”—is akin to putting together a flour mix to bake a cake. As Jeff Alworth wrote in his Beer Bible, “whether you’re making a white cake or a chocolate cake, the main ingredient is flour.” When you’re making beer, the main ingredient is barley. Even wheat beers and oatmeal stouts rely on a solid base of barley malt. Much like even the darkest chocolate cake is primarily made of white flour, even the darkest beers are primarily made from pale malts.

Question is, can we mix and match any random combination of malts to make beer? Not quite. Not all malts produce sufficient levels of important enzymes that convert starches into sugars. That enzymatic quality matters, and explains the single biggest difference between “base malts” and “specialty malts.” And to complicate matters, we also have non-barley grains (wheat, oats, etc.) to round out the three major malt categories:

  1. Base Malts.
  2. Specialty Malts
  3. Additional Brewing Grains

Base Malts

Think of these as the primary—almost exclusive—source of sugars. (Technically, they provide starches that get converted into sugars by enzymes when you steep them in the mash). Just as important, base malts contain enzymes that convert the starches of other malts, including those that don’t have their own enzymes. For the most part, base malts are pale in colour

I wrote earlier that you can’t have beer without malt. But to be more precise and practical, you can’t have beer without a base malt. To get base malts to do their magic, you need to mash them—it’s the mashing process that releases the starches, which eventually convert to sugars. It’s those sugars the yeast will feed on.

As a result, the mash is a critical step in the brewing process. When I made the switch to all-grain brewing, I had no clue how important the mash was. My first couple batches were thin…and that’s because I failed to extract enough starch out of my grains. I failed by simply not taking the strike temperature (the water’s temperature when you add the grains to the kettle), mash, and mash-out temperatures seriously enough.

Why do mash temperatures matter so much during the mash?

The importance of the mash

As you know, the most important process of the mash is the conversion of starches to sugars, thanks to some friendly and useful enzymes, specifically, alpha amylase and beta amylase.

  • Alpha Amylase is happy when your mash is sitting between 150-160˚F. At these temperatures, it converts starches into complex sugars (which yeast has a much harder time fermenting). If your mash is in this temperature range, you’ll end up with a sweeter beer and a thicker body.
  • Beta amylase is happy when your mash is sitting between 130-150˚F. At these temperature, it converts starch into simple sugars, which yeast can easily ferment. If your mash is in this temperature range, you’ll end up with a drier beer and a thinner body.

This is why the mash temperature can play a huge role in the success of your final beer. A warmer mash results in a sweeter beer; a cooler mash in a drier beer.

I should also pause here to point out the importance of “mashing out”. This is the step in which we raise the temperature of the mash to 168˚F at the end of the mash and let stand for 10 minutes. This is an important step—the higher temperature shuts down saccharification. Without a mash-out, the enzymes continue working, which could lead to a loss of body and sweetness.

So, to recap, here’s what we know about base malts:

  • They must be mashed, and the mash temperatures matter a great deal.
  • They are enzymatic, which means they release enzymes that convert starch to sugar.
  • They usually make up the majority (at least 60%, but probably 80-90%) of your grain bill.
  • Examples include pilsner malt, pale ale malt, two-row, six-row, lager. In some styles, could include wheat, Munich, or Vienna malt.

Specialty Malts

While nothing stops you from making a beer with a grain bill of 100% base malts, you would probably find it one-dimensional. This is where specialty malts make a huge difference. They help make your beer interesting—either lending additional flavours, colours or body. Plus, there’s a huge variety of specialty malts on the market to keep you busy for the rest of your life. There are literally an infinite number of combinations you could play with.

Specialty malts can—and typically are—added to the mash with the base malt. But, as partial-extract brewers can tell you, these grains don’t need to be mashed—they can contribute their colours and flavours with a simple steep. They don’t need to mashed because most specialty malts are non-enzymatic, which means they do not release significant levels of those crucial enzymes we learned about above. That’s why you need to pair them with base malts, as the specialty malts rely on the base malt’s enzymes for the starch-to-sugar conversion. For our purposes (brew-in-a-bag method), we add them to the mash, to make our lives simple.

The most popular specialty malts are crystal or caramel malts. Maltsters create crystal malts by roasting still-moist barley before drying it. This processes caramelizes the sugars, which are perfect for enhancing the body of your beer. As you can imagine, given its name, caramel malt adds a certain toffee flavour to your beer. If you overdo it, however, you’ll end up with an overly tannic beer (another mistake I once made…) Caramel malts sit on a wide spectrum of caramelization, lending either light colours, or very dark colours, to your beer.

Dark malts are also quite popular. As the name would suggest, these malts add deep brown, or even black colour to your beer. They can also add smokiness, rustiness, sweetness, and even coffee-like flavours to your beer. Given their potency (to both change the colour and the flavour of the beer), they are used in small quantities. A little really goes a long way.

To recap what we know about specialty malts:

  • They can be steeped or mash
  • They are mostly non-enzymatic, which is why they represent a much smaller percentage of the grain bill.
  • Examples include crystal malt, chocolate malt, biscuit malt, brown malt, black barley, chocolate malt, roasted barley.

Additional Brewing Grains

As I mentioned earlier, we don’t always brew beer exclusively with barley. We often toss in flaked oats, or wheat to make oatmeal ales and wheat beers, for example. Here too, you can mix and match non-barley grains to give your beer a unique finish. For example, you can use wheat malt in non-wheat beers, in small quantities, to improve head formation and retention. Or you may use oats to add a bit of creaminess. You might even consider using rye to add a creamy head, a dry finish, and a hint of spice to darker beers, or a minty taste to lighter beers. You can even use unmalted barley to add a slight sour taste to your beer (although, not to be confused with making a sour—a specific beer style that merits its own tutorial).

Finally, to recap what we know about additional brewing grains:

  • They must be mashed with a base malt, as they have no enzymes
  • Examples include unsalted barley, flaked oats, flaked wheat, and yes, even rice.

Milling Your Malt: What You Need to Know

You could source the perfect grain bill, with the freshest grains, but you’ll make a thin, watery, tasteless beer, if you don’t do this important step: mill your grains. You need to mill your grains so that the water can extract the starches properly. As any coffee connoisseur will tell you, there’s a huge difference between milling your grains and grinding your grains. Do NOT pulverize them in a coffee grinder, or a food processor. Doing so will add off-flavours to your beer. Milling (which your local homebrew shop will probably do for you at no cost) keeps the barley’s husk whole, while cracking it open. That’s all you want – a partially open husk, so that it can release its starches into your wort. If you don’t have your own grain mill, and you don’t have access to a local homebrew shop, you have two options:

  1. Order the grains pre-milled online
  2. Mill them manually, by placing your grains in a ziplock, and using a rolling pin to crush them lightly.

I relied on the second option for a long time. It works, but you run into consistency issues from one batch to another. I much prefer having a professional mill my grains for me.

Last Updated





39 responses to “Understanding Malt: The Soul of Your Beer”


    1. Ah, Guess Caps was ON!

      1. Thanks Neil! I appreciate the kind note.

  2. Jamie

    So much great information here! I’ve downloaded the 1 Gallon recipe book and look forward to trying some of those after I finish a second kit that I have. The first one from Brew North was a huge success, fingers crossed on the second from Brooklyn BrewShop. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks so much Jamie! I’m working on a ‘hops’ version of this — hopefully hitting the publish button in the next week or two! Good luck with the kits as eventual recipes!

  3. Martin toye

    Great article. Thorough enjoyed reading this. I made the mistake as you with the mash Temps. Hopefully my next batch will be better.

    1. Thanks for the note Martin. Yeah, keep an eye on your mash temps, and even more importantly, your fermentation temperature. I have ruined too many beers by not forcing my beers to ferment at the right temperatures.

  4. Christian Zapata


    1. Thanks so much for the kind words Christian, I appreciate it!

  5. Ethan

    Thank you for a Beautiful site with great content! I’ve brewed approximately 10 one-gallon batches due to space constraints, and noticed that you’ve adopted small batches, as well. I was wondering if you had a method for maintaining fermentation temperature without any special gadgets, specifically in the summer months when my apartment can hit the high 70’s without the A/c on all day.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Ethan! Indeed, I have the same problem. This year I’m making some investments in some temperature control gear, but in previous summers, I would stick to Saisons with yeast strains that thrive at much higher temperatures. I also use one super cheap trick:

      1-gallon glass carboys fit perfectly in 2-gallon plastic buckets (which I use for my bottling bucket).

      So, I place the carboy in the bucket and fill the bucket with cold water, nearly to the top. Now the carboy is immersed in cold water, and the temperature will fluctuate much less than when left out on the counter naked.

      I also add small ice packs to the water and keep re-adding cold ice packs to keep that water chilled.

      I’ve found that I can generally keep the temperature under 22C (71F) using this trick. But to play it extra safe, I still stick to saison recipes.

      1. Here in the UK we usually have the other problem – keeping the temperature up rather than down. Through much of the year my garage is nowhere near 20 degrees. My latest acquisition, however, is an old fridge which with a min/max controller and a heating element in the base should give me much better temperature control at both ends of the scale.

      2. Roger

        Joe, can BEans like pinto beans be used as specialty grains or added grains? it may sound crazy or foolish, but don’t knoe if this is technically possible.

        1. Hey Roger,

          Thanks for the note. This is a new one for me! I’ve never even considered or researched using beans in a brew. Let me get back to you on this one.

  6. Robbie

    Thanks for the info, this site is GreAt!

    1. Thanks so much RobbiE!

  7. Keith

    Thanks again for your informative and easy to read site.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to post the note of thanks Keith!

  8. Kevin

    Thanks for putting together this website that’s free of ads and annoying pop-ups!

    1. Thanks so much for the kind note Kevin! I appreciate it!

  9. Chris

    What’s the reason or what’s going on with variable mash temps? For a Belgian strong ale, 30 min at 138, 30 min at 150 and another 30 min at 156.

  10. stephen r thompson

    I am at present thinking of making beer from breakfast cereals eg wheatabix ect will I have to addother ingredients to the brew or will the cereals be ok on there own
    thanks for the info and download joseph

  11. David H

    Excellent article. Good to appreciate the science behind the brewing process.

  12. Richard Pitschka

    This is a very interesting and useful article, but I was confused by one thing. What is the Strike temperature? You say that it’s important, but nowhere in the article do i see it explained. Or did i miss something?

    1. Good catch richard. I’ll update the guide to clarify that, but strike temp is the temperature of the water when you add the grains to the kettle.

      1. Michael Morgan

        Could you elaborate on this further? Are there different strike temperatures for different grain bills or is it always the same? In either case, please provide an example if you can.

        Thanks for all this info. It’s a fascinating subject and I’m grateful to have your accumulated knowledge available.

  13. Shiva bhattarai

    Thank you for the most easy words you have put out here. I have yet to make any beer of my own and situated in a country where I cannot order products online as easily as I was able to back in the US. This guide helps me understand and get local products with ease.

    Thanks again for this Excellent article 🙂

    1. Thanks for the kind words Shiva!

  14. Tony

    just getting into brewing, so i’ve been reading a lot, and i have to say this was great! tons of good info but concise as well. bookmarking this page. Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much Tony!

  15. Ken

    Excellent write up and very helpful!

    1. Thanks so much Ken!

  16. Jose

    I am amazed at how helpful and useful this site is. It has become my go-to for home-brewing info. Keep up the good work. (Sorry about the all-caps. I have no idea why its typing this way, my caps lock is not on, strange…) 🙂

    1. Thanks so much Jose, I appreciate the kind words!

  17. Michael Morgan

    In the Specialty Malts section, you mention these malts do not need to be mashed and can be steeped instead because they’re non-enzymatic. Is that because they don’t need the enzyme to add some (if, I assume, not all) of their qualities to the beer? Otherwise, I do not see how this agrees with the additional grains needing to be mashed for the same reason that the specialty malts do not.



  19. Mike Lovatt

    Great site!
    Thanks for all the info.
    Job well done.

  20. Paul Shepard

    Now I am looking deeper into what I’m actually doing with my Brewing this helps me understand it much better, whole-grain Brewing is definitely my next step once I fully understand designing my own recipes, thanks.
    (sorry, don’t know why this is all Capitals)

  21. Peter Stapleton

    Hi Joseph,
    NEW brewer here from hong kong. Love your sIte, easy to read and undeRstand. Not easy to get too many DIFFERENT types of grain here thOugh. An just about to bottke a versIon of yOur session ipa so understandiNg the grains has been important. Thanks for such a great site.

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