At this point, you may have two batches of mead, a batch of wine, a batch of cider, and a batch of beer fermenting away in your basement.  So, let’s take a step away from making something this week and start going over the main ingredients in beer.

First, what is malt?  Malting is a process to soften the outer husk of a grain, and allow access to enzymes that break down starches into sugars.  This process has several steps which are:

  1. Germination – The grains are mixed into water in a dark room to begin the germination process.
  2. Kilning – At this point the grain is dried and heated.  The heating will change the quality of the grain making different types of malt (we’ll get to those in a bit)
  3. Cleanup – Now they want to break off the little dried out rootlets that have sprouted, test the malt to check the quality and the specs of this batch.

Many grains can be malted (including corn, wheat, rice, and oats), but barley is the main one for beer.  Malts can be broken down into a couple of broad families:

  • Base Malts [Diastatic Malt] – These malts have enough diastatic power (measurement of the amount of enzymes present in the malts) to convert the starches in themselves and a certain amount of other malts.  The main ones used in beer are referred to as 2-row and 6-row (based on the structure of the head of barley) with many regional ones being used for specialty beers (Marris Otter – British, Munich – German, Pils – Pilsners).  These can add biscuit and bready notes to the beer.
  • Crystal/Caramel Malts – While the process to make Crystal and Caramel malts is different, the end result is very similar and at the homebrew level the two terms are generally used interchangeable.  These are malts that have been roasted and to force the sugars to be modified into a non-fermentable state. These are referred to by their Lovibond rating (this is a measure of the color, the higher the number, the darker).  These malts will add body, some caramel notes, some sweetness, and (for the darker ones) some roasted notes.
  • Specialty Malts – These are used in small amounts for specific characteristics they can impart to the beer.  Carapils is a popular one that’s said to increase head retention and body, smoked malts have been smoked and add that flavor, chocolate malt will add chocolate notes, roasted barley is non-malted and will add a dark color and roasted flavors.  Technically all Crystal/Caramel malts could be considered specialty malts as well.

A beer recipe will generally have between 50-75% of the grist (crushed malts) made up of base malts, with the rest being crystal/caramel or specialty malts.  You can also make a beer with nothing but base malts or just a single base malt. The vast majority of the time, you can also freely swap between base malts (although it will change the flavor) in a recipe, unless it’s using a large amount of specialty malts or adjuncts.

Now that I’ve mentioned adjuncts, I should probably explain them.  When talking about an adjunct in the brewing world, you’re referring to anything that isn’t malted barley (or wheat in some cases), hops, water, and yeast.  So rice, corn, oats, and rye are all adjuncts, as are Candi syrup, table sugar, or fruit juice. Spices, vegetables, fruits, and herbs also qualify. Do adjuncts make a beer bad?  No, forget the Reinheitsgebot.  It was passed to protect the income of nobility who were making wheat beers.  It sets price controls!

So why use adjuncts?  The main reason is for different qualities that the grain and sugar additions can make.  You want that creamy mouthfeel of an oatmeal stout? You need to use some oats. Want to make a milk stout?  You’ll need to include some lactose (milk sugar). The other is flavor, there’s nothing wrong with a good fruit beer, or a nice spiced porter.  According to a couple of books I’ve read, some of the Belgian breweries (if you drink good beer, you’ve probably had their stuff) use flour as an adjunct in the mash.  And you can’t say the Belgians don’t make good beer.