What is Malt?
Malt is the end product of a grain (most commonly barley, but also wheat, rye, spelt, etc.) that has been soaked, partially germinated, then dried and roasted. Malt is the key component of beer - it provides that fundamental "beer" taste or "malty" flavor profile. Malt also affects the alcohol level, color, body, and head of a beer.
Changing the manner, and the degree to which the grain is roasted produces different malt products. For example, lightly roasted barley produces a pilsner or pale malt. If the barley is roasted slightly longer, it produces a Vienna malt, and if roasted longer still, a Munich malt. The malt industry has (somewhat imprecisely) established these grades of malt based on color and scientific characteristics of the finished product. While one manufacturer's pale malt will typically taste and look similar to its competitors, variations are inevitable.
The Importance of Malt
Beer contains four basic ingredients: water, yeast, hops, and malt.
Pure water is a critical component for high quality beer. The goal, however, is not for water to add taste to the beer, but rather to avoid creating off-tastes in the end product.
As for yeast, a limited number of different strains are used to make beer, but the choices are standardized and the yeast itself is not easily manipulated by the brewmaster.
Hops are the third key ingredient of beer. Varietals of hops add the bitter taste and aromatic notes (such as citrus, pine, herbal, etc.) to the finished product. Different hops impart unique taste profiles to beer. That taste is determined at maturity, and cannot be altered once harvested and processed.
Malt is the one key component of beer that lends itself to an infinite variety of flavors to the end product. The maltster can create those different tastes by selecting different types of grain, then roasting the malts to varying levels of "toastiness". A relatively small increase in the roasting temperature or time can have a very significant impact on the malt, which in turn can have a pronounced effect on the taste, color, and body of the finished beer.
If you've come this far, you may enjoy Devour's video, The Chemistry of Craft Beer:
How We Make Malt
There are three main steps in the malting process. First, the grain is soaked in water and drained several times during the first two days. This steeping step is necessary to increase the moisture level of the grain and bring it to life. The second phase is germination, which comes about as a result of the temperature control and moisture levels we have established. During this step, which lasts for approximately four days, the grain starts to grow much like it would if you planted it in a field. The kernels sprout rootlets and the stem of the future plant (called the “acrospire”) starts to grow inside the kernel. A number of important biochemical changes start to happen within the grain, including enzyme activation and the breakdown of certain proteins. During this second phase, the grain must be turned twice a day by hand (a great workout!) to dissipate heat and keep the kernels aerated and separate – otherwise, you would end up with a tangled brick of grain. [This video by our friend Bill Bakan of Maize Valley captures part of this process]. The third step is the kilning process. At this stage, we have allowed the kernels to germinate to a point where we have the desired amount of starch and enzymes, and we need to stop the germination process. We accomplish this by moving the grain bed into a kiln, where the grain will dry at relatively low temperatures over many hours. Lower kilning temperatures are used to produce pilsner and pale malts, while higher temperatures are used to produce Vienna and Munich malts. Finally, it is sent through a seed cleaner to remove the rootlets, then bagged. [See another one of Bill's instructive videos on this phase here - thanks, Bill!]. From start to finish, the process takes 6-8 days.
At first, the malting process looks and sounds relatively simple: select raw material, steep, then bake. However, there are good reasons why malting is often referred to as an art. As a maltster, you have to factor in a large number of variables and make constant adjustments to your process to make great malt. Each variety of grain malts slightly different and, in fact, the same varieties grown on different farms react differently. In addition, the critical kilning process is impacted by variable weather/atmospheric conditions that change the level of humidity during the drying process. Needless to say, we monitor those conditions very closely, and adjust as necessary.
Profiles in Malt (hardly exhaustive)
Pilsner: The lightest malt available. Imparts a slight flavor-sweet and gently grainy. Despite the name, pilsner malt can be used in any style of beer.
Pale: Kilned slightly darker than pilsner, pale malt gives the beer a more bready flavor; typically used in ales.
Vienna: Slightly darker than pale malt; used to produce light amber beers like bock and Oktoberfest.
Munich: Roughly twice as dark as Vienna, with an amber hue that heads towards red. It is prized for its rich, caramel flavor with hints of toast and nuts.
Caramel/Crystal: This category of malts includes examples that are quite light (for use in pale ales), medium, or almost brown (for use in darker ales).
Chocolate: Used in porters and stouts; when combined with lighter, sweeter, malts, its gentle bitterness can indeed closely resemble cacao.
Black Malt: Akin to espresso; intense bitter flavor, sometimes even charred. Adds depth and complexity to a beer as well as balancing sweeter malts in high-gravity recipes.
Roasted Barley: Used primarily in stouts, it provides the deep, roasted flavor that characterizes Irish stouts like Guinness.
Wheat: In some styles, the protein in wheat stays in suspension and clouds a beer. Wheat works with certain yeasts to produce banana and clove flavors.
Rye: Ryes thrives in poor soil, so its use in both bread and beer has been concentrated in colder, harsher regions. Finns and Russians use it to make their traditional beers, sahti and kvass.
Oats: Oats are used to enhance a beer’s texture, creating a silky, creamy quality that works well in both stouts and pale ales.
Spelt: a pale, well modified malt-aromatic product made from spelt, a hard-grained heirloom wheat. It imparts characteristic spelt aroma notes.
Largely sourced from The Beer Bible, Jeff Alworth, 2015.
Today's Malt Market
A few large beer producers (e.g., InBev) are vertically integrated and produce their own malt. Only a couple of craft breweries have adopted that strategy and most likely will still have to buy malt on the open market to produce their beer. A handful of very large global companies, including Cargill, GrainCorp, MaltEurope, and Malteries Soufflet, dominate the commercial malt market.
Haus Malts joins the twenty or so micro malt houses that have been established in the U.S. in the last few years. Our production levels are very small and our output is but a fraction of the malt produced by the large companies described above.
The large producers offer set product lines and do not generally entertain special orders to develop new or custom malts for craft brewmasters. The customer is basically required to buy what the large producers are selling. The crafters have no direct relationship with the actual malters -- their only interaction is with a salesman or distributor. That clearly is not the case when working with Haus Malts to deliver unique malts for your products.