Beer School: What is Malt in brewing beer?

Today we are going to drill down on malt. We want to know how it’s made. Especially how it’s used by brewers to make the amazing flavors that we see today in modern brewing. When was the last time you got excited about the malt in your beer? Hops take the headlines. Yeast gets the unsung hero award. And malt is lucky to get a mention in a thank you speech.

When there are only four ingredients in something, every single one of them is worthy of attention. In beer malt adds aroma, flavor, body, it gives it color and helps retain head. Of course, it provides the sugar that’s turned into alcohol. So how is made and used is key to understanding our favorite drink? Brewing starts with basically making porridge with malt and warm water which creates the sugary liquid that we ferment. In case you want in-depth knowledge about other basic beer ingredients check our Beer School: What about Hops?

Different types of grains for turning into malt.

What is Malt?

In most cases, it’s barley that’s gone through a very specific process releasing vital enzymes and adding color. Traditionally barley has not been usable for bread making. It has a husk that helps to brew because it forms a bed in the last turn and filters itself. It also has a very nice starch to nitrogen protein balance which is more beneficial to brewing.

Getting barley in peak condition starts by harvesting and delivering by farmers. The first step is to check its free from contaminants such as other plants or grains. It needs to be of the highest quality. Barley is full of starch which is basically sugar. So we need to germinate it to make it easier to extract. Grain is steeped in tepid water to hydrate the starch and activate the enzymes. The perfect state to sprout and grow.

A handful of sprouting barley.

How we create Malt?

Before the barley truly starts to grow the grain is kilned to stop the process and dry it out. As well as preserving the enzymes and sugar for the mash, malt can add color and flavor to the kiln. Lower temperatures and less time in the kiln mean lighter roasting and more biscuit caramel notes. While higher temperatures and longer time will result in carbonization of the sugars and more savory roast-based flavors.

Clearly, a lot of work in history has gone into producing different kinds of malts. That demand is now being driven further by brewers as they look to diversify and improve upon what they make. There’s still a lot of work to do once the malting is done.

Glasses filled with different types and colors of malt for brewing beer.

Malt in the brewing process

The mash is a critical and intensely complicated part of the brewing process with endless opportunities to tweak to get the best from an ingredient that varies throughout the year. In small breweries, it’s a time when brewers are using their instincts as much as their brains. And in the bigger breweries, it’s calculated and monitored.

The idea is to extract the malt sugars by warming them all to the point where enzymes start to break down the inedible starch. In reality, it’s a tricky balancing act between the right amount of water, the right temperature, and the right time. In the end, you need the desired color as well as the perfect gravity to nail the balance of sweetness and the alcohol level.

A sack of barley and a glass of light golden beer.

Many brewers used to stick to barley for their mash but not anymore. Wheat is used for body and bread-like sweetness. Rye for its spicy tang, and a range of gluten-free and heritage malts to give hope to celiacs. Even rice is ready to come back to craft brewing.

For most brewers, malt forms the baseline for their recipe onto which they layer everything else. Traditional British styles are all about the yeast and hot nuances to play off the malt. Brewers are only starting to explore the wide variety of flavors that can be teased out by selection and process. Slowly exploring the hard work done over centuries by malters. Cheers.

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