Beer: What is it? Part 2 – Malt

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Malt
Malt in a Fueled By Hops OG Glass

This article is part 2 in an informational series that discusses what beer is and the main ingredients in beer. A lot of beer drinkers, dare I say most of beer drinkers, are familiar with the base ingredients: grain & malt, hops, water, and yeast. What do you know about the sub-categories, styles, and variations within these main four, though? The first installment will go over malt. There are both base malts and specialty malts, and combining both within a recipe creates the different styles. This article will be about base malts.

You may have heard terms referring to malt thrown around and not even realize it. Brewers (and recipes) talk about two-row or six-row, as well as Pilsner, Pale Ale, Vienna, etc., which are all barley malts, as well as those like Wheat and Rye, which are malts made with those cereal grains, instead.

Yes, these can be beer styles, but the styles would have gotten the name from somewhere also, right?

Base malts are, simply put, the base of the beer. This is used as the fuel to the yeast. Yeast needs something to eat and turn into alcohol. (More on yeast in another article.) There are a few breweries out in the wild that don’t use the typical cereal grains and produce gluten free beer. They may use corn, sorghum, buckwheat, or millet.

bottom to top: 2-row, wheat, crystal, chocolate

Each of these grains imparts a different flavor within the beer, as well as being used for different things, but there are even noticeable variations within each grain category. I listed some commonly known barley malts earlier, and they each give a different flavor profile. Considering that almost all beer have traditional malts in them, what are you really tasting when you call something “malty” tasting? This all depends on how the grain was processed, as well as being subjective depending on the drinker’s individual palate. Most commonly, when someone mentions wanting a “malty” beer, they want a sweeter beer that is not hop forward. Maybe a nice lager, an English style brown ale, or even a red ale. The drinker usually would not be asking for a “crispy” beer if they say malty, even though pilsner, for example, is a type of malt. They also usually would not be asking for an IPA if they say malty, even though pale ale is also a malt style. IPAs are known more to be bitter or juicy(New England IPAs,) not having the toasted, caramel-y flavors that are usually thought of as malty. IPAs get the bitterness (and even the juiciness, some) from the hops used as well as the adjuncts added. More on hops in a later article.

When it comes to 2-row and 6-row, it’s more of an American thing than beer thing. The majority of the world only uses 2-row, and 6-row is used on farms for animal feed. Americans love to make things their own, though, and decided to make beer with it, too. The biggest different in the two, visually, anyway, is the rows of cones on each piece. 2-row also has a thinner husk, and it’s thought that 6-row has better enzymes to promote conversion into ferment-able sugars. While this is a pro, one major con to 6-row is that it can form DMS, or dimethyl sulfide, easier than the alternative. DMS is an off-flavor produced, more so by pale malts, that gives a smell (and even sometimes slight flavor) of creamed corn. Sometimes you can fix this by using higher temperatures or even a different yeast strain.

I spoke to brewer Rachael Engel, (Bosk Brew Works, Woodinville, WA, former brewer at Ghostfish Brewing Company,) and she said that for smaller breweries, at least, she prefers 2-row because it has a higher sugar content and you don’t get as much husk astringency. Husk astringency is an unpleasant bitterness and off-flavor that can be caused by sparge being too hot. Rachael also has experience brewing gluten free beer from her time at Ghostfish Brewing Company. She said that brewing gluten free beer is nearly as easy as just swapping out the grains with gluten free options. It will need to be mashed at different temperatures, and it does need enzymes added some to aid the brewing process. It also may contribute to more stuck mashes and clogged runoff pipes.

This isn’t even close to all of the malts that are out there. Next article, I’ll go over some specialty malts and I will also go over the malting process in the next few weeks. Have you done any brewing? Do you have preferred malts to use? Let’s chat in the Fueled by Hops Facebook group!