“So I need some 2-row.” We hear this all the time– but we don’t mind because it opens the door to a question that every homebrewer needs to ask: Where Do Malts Come From?
Most homebrewers are familiar with the basic steps involved in malting barley, and are acquainted with the concepts of modification, stewing (crystallization), and various kilning techniques (if you’re not, check out How to Brew). But when it comes time to build a recipe and decide what is going to comprise the second largest portion of your beer (water being the largest), how do you decide between U.S. Pale and U.K Pale, or between Crystal 40 and Caramel Munich 40? Don’t trust a random recipe you found on the internet. Use your senses!
“They” say first impressions are the most important, no matter how many romantic comedies try to prove the opposite (or do they?). I think it’s quite true for malts. Think about a stalk of barley grass, growing flaxen-gold in the field. Pluck the head off, and peel off the grain. Is it plump, fat with starches; or is it dull, misshapen like a potato grown in clay? Perform the same visual exam in the grain room. Take a grain, check it out, and take it apart, revealing its sweet insides.
Although we’re selling a food product, we’re not a giant grocery store– like local natural food stores, you’re welcome to taste before you buy. Open up the bins, shake them up, take a whiff!
Regardless of what style you’re brewing, the aroma of malt is of critical importance. You’ll learn pretty fast not to add rich melanoidin malt to your cream ale, and you’ll instantly distinguish the difference between that Crystal 40 and Caramel Munich 40. Sniffing various base malts is a swift indicator of its specific maltiness. Now on to the big top…
Put it in your mouth. Use your teeth. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself drinking a beer with this as a featured ingredient. Now imagine it in combination with other malts. Try it in combination with other malts. Is it bready? Is it caramelly? Is it acidic? Is it burnt? Keep chewing it, the way you do until saltines turn sweet. There. You just mashed in your mouth. Those carefully mapped out sections of your tongue have created what should be a lasting impression– a flavor profile.
The more you do this, the better your recipes will be. It will become a plague at times, when you can identify a lower quality malt in a favorite beer, or identify your favorite IPA by its grainy-sweet maltiness rather than its floral hop aroma (or both, that’s great). I once had to confer with a competition director to confirm there was in fact cherry wood smoked malt in a beer, that I wasn’t just crazy.
So, do I have any 2-row? Of course! Most of the malts out there are 2-row. 6-row, the other type of malting barley, is high in enzymes and husk material, and is great for high-adjunct beverages, but unnecessary for brewing most beer. You probably mean base malts– do you want American, British, German, Belgian…?
I swear I can do this without bias (because I have favorites). Generally, the origin of the base malt is great for brewing beer from that region. Pilsener: duh (but try it in an IPA!). Munich malt is great as the primary base malt in dunkels, doppelbocks, and altbiers, to name a few. Maris Otter, a U.K. variety, lends its particular bready sweetness to porters, bitters, and other beers with Anglo roots. Malts from the U.S. today are great at playing second fiddle to excessive hopping. It all depends on what you like. I always put a percentage of a pale German malt into my pale ales with Maris Otter because I enjoy the complementing bready- and grainy- sweet malt flavors. But you should know: hoping for a characterful enough malt profile from cheap 2-row in a SMASH (single-malt and single-hop) beer will get you something that tastes like Hamm’s. Believe me, I did it.
Many recipes overlook some of the more esoteric malts in favor of the classics, hoping for popular appeal. If you’re looking to add different malt character to your beer, here’s a couple to get you started:
–Weyermann CaraBohemian: Cocoa and toffee notes and a deep red-brown color. Excellent addition for character in Old Ales or English Porters, less than 10% of grain bill.
–Simpson’s Crystal Rye: Rye is an acquired taste, but I think this is a gateway malt. Excellent in ambers, browns, and fall-type beers (I first used it in a pumpkin lager…). Like rye bread crust with some brown sugar. I chew on this malt most often.
Hopefully that’s enough of a tease to encourage a couple finger-fulls of malts you’ve never tried. Be sure to keep us appraised of your future experiences!