by Alain Schepers Beer sommelier and blogger at Bierista.nl
Malt: the soul of beer?The role of malt in beer
“Malt is the soul of beer.” I read those words at a beer convention in Germany. A big statement. The same is often also said about yeast, and personally, I find that comparison more accurate. Yeast is mysterious and more elusive than malt, but malt is unmistakably important when brewing beer. If it’s not the soul, then it’s definitely the spine.
But what exactly are we talking about? Malt is, simply put, germinated grain which is then dried. During the germination process, enyzmes convert the starch from the cereal grain into sugars. These sugars are important later on in the brewing process for the formation of carbonic acid and alcohol. During the drying process, the temperature rises and kills the germ. This dead attachment is then brushed away so you’re left with a dry grain.
From grain to malt
Producing malt is a skill, which is why hardly any brewers malt their own grains - that’s a job left for maltings. There are a number of maltings spread out throughout the UK. Germany is home to the world famous Weyermann in Bamberg, and in Belgium, Castle Malting and Dingemans are well known malting sites.
Malt is available in many different varieties. For the majority of the time, barley is used for brewing beer. After the malting process, we speak of barley malt. However, other grain types, like wheat, rye and oats, are also malted and used for brewing. Often, various malt types will be used simultaneously, as is the case for Tripel Karmeliet, which is brewed with barley malt, wheat malt and oatmeal. Jopen also regularly uses different grain types: take their 4-grain bock for example, which is brewed with barley, wheat, oats and rye.
Grains are often used for brewing without being malted. This always happens in combination with malted grains, because those grains that haven’t been malted don’t contain the necessary enzymes to make beer. White beers are brewed with unmalted wheat, which gives them their freshness. Blanche De Namur and Walhalla Minerva are fine examples. Minerva also contains spelt.
From light to black malt
After drying, the malt is kilned. This can be done at different temperatures, but the lower the temperature, the lighter in colour the malt stays. Kilning at higher temperatures for a longer period of time gives the malt grain a darker colour. The results can range from very light to roasted black malts.
The colour of the malt determines the colour of the beer. If you only use lighter malts, you’ll get a light coloured beer like a pilsner (such as Pilsner Urquell). To make dark beers, darker malt is used. Malt has a significant influence on the taste of the beer. It can give sweet, grainy flavours, or, with darker grains you get aromas that can taste like caramel. Grimbergen Dubbel is a beautiful example of this. There are also malts that give off a chocolate aroma, with the darkest malts giving beers a roasted bitterness. Stouts and porters have chocolate and roasted aromas, for example, Kees Export Porter 1750.
Barley wines contain a relatively large amount of malt. Bommen & Granaten by De Molen is a great example, brewed with an enormous amount of malt.
From malt to beer
Before brewing starts, the malt is milled. The grains are broken to expose the kernel. The milled malt is then soaked in water, the temperature of which is raised in steps. During these steps, the sugars present are transformed into bite-sized chunks for the yeast to feed on.
Once all the sugars have dissolved properly, the solid pieces are filtered from the wort, or the future beer. The remains of the cereal grain are referred to as brewers grains. These are frequently used as fodder, but nowadays brewers grains are also being used more often in bread.
The wort is a sugar-rich water. Yeast cells later eat the sugar during the brewing process, thereby separating the carbonic acid and alcohol. This leaves you with beer, which then needs a little time to settle and ripen.
A brewer will rarely use only one type of malt. They use a special blend of malt types, which have an effect on the flavour. A good brewer has a talent for pinpointing the perfect ratio. Just like Mozart could hear his composition whilst writing down the music notes, an experienced brewer can taste the beer by simply writing down a recipe.