Steeped, germinated and dried is no way to go through life, son.
Perhaps not for students of Faber College, but for barley it’s not only a good way to go through life, it’s perhaps the most noble of all pursuits. Sure, I’m a brewer and likely biased by my interests as such, but it is the process of malting (steeping, germinating and drying) that turns basic grains like barley into MALT.
Without malt, there would not be beer, so let’s dive into it. Malting is the process of steeping grains like barley with water to begin the germination process. If you’ve ever grown your own plants from seed you’ve likely noticed that with time and water that seed will start to grow, beginning the germination process, eventually developing into a new plant. However, with malting barley for beer, the maltster will stop the growth process very early in its development, basically as soon as the seed begins to show signs of life in the form of a tiny sprout.
The barley is then dried with warm air to create the stable food-stuff we call malt. From a brewing perspective, it’s what’s happening inside the seed that is most important. The complex starches in the seed are being converted to simpler starches that would serve as energy for the plant to grow, but when it comes to beer, these simpler starches are converted into sugars during the brewing process to serve as food for yeast. Yeast consume sugars to create primarily carbon dioxide and alcohol (see last month’s post for more detail on yeast) But nothing is quite that simple in nature, the chemistry of malt is rather complex with many different types of sugar present. In this area, the maltster and brewer work in tandem through independent processes to control the ratios of these various sugars which in turn impacts the flavor and body of the beer we drink.
Another important way that malt impacts our beer is through color. By controlling the temperature of the air used during the drying process, the maltster can impact the color of the malt which translates through to the color of our beer. Furthermore, the maltster can employ a roasting process to the malt to impart even deeper colors and flavors.
With color also comes flavor. As sweet and grainy malt is roasted to deeper colors, it begins developing more complex and useful flavor profiles. Roasted malt contributes big flavor to beer; malts bring caramel, chocolate, and coffee notes to beers and longer roasting eventually imparts a sharp bitterness to the finished drink. In fact, there are many different “malts” produced for brewers by maltsters through their kilning and roasting processes. Similar to a chef selecting ingredients for a meal, the brewer then selects from these various types of malt to achieve a desired combination of color and flavor.
In addition to barley, other grains (sometimes malted, sometimes not) such as wheat, oats, rye, corn and rice are frequently used in brewing beer. I’ll avoid the rabbit hole of brewing science as to why these grains are used by brewers in certain circumstances, but the take away is that all of these grains can add sugars, color and flavor to a brewer’s set of tools when developing any particular recipe.
While all this may be fascinating to those of you considering brewing your own beer, others are likely wondering why they should care about malting at all. A valid point; a person can certainly enjoy beer without knowing much about how it is made. I’m in the camp of folks, however, who believe understanding enhances experience. And that, in the end, is the point of this blog.
May you find the right beer for the right moment in your days ahead.