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.
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:
- Base Malts.
- Specialty Malts
- Additional Brewing Grains
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, 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.
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:
- Order the grains pre-milled online
- 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.