Malt, or grains processed for brewing, is critical to a beer’s style. The grain bill delivers aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, head retention and color to the finished product.
Unfortunately, malt is often overshadowed by hops. To overlook it is a mistake, however. In addition to the above attributes, it also provides the fermentable sugars that create alcohol.
Grains suitable for brewing undergo several steps before they’re ready to be steeped into mash. After harvest, grains are stored, steeped and germinated, or sprouted, which prepares the individual kernels for brewing. Maltsters then dry the grains in a kiln or roaster, cure them and send them to breweries.
A fresh bag of malt is like paint and canvas all in one, ready for a brewer to create art.
Wheat and two-row barley are among the most popular brewing grains, thanks to their availability and the cereal and bready flavors that they impart. You’ll find wheat in the grain bill of popular German ale styles like hefeweizen, and two-row in American standards like Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
The country has seen a rise in the number of micro maltsters, which supply specialty and local grain to brewers.
A growing number of breweries add information on a beer’s grain bill to their labels, and knowing a few key words can help you better understand its flavors and aromas.
Caramel malts lend sweetness. Roasted malts deliver on their name, but can also add coffee, chocolate and toffee flavors. Rye gives beer spiciness, while sorghum imparts nutty and earthy notes.
Corn, when used properly, can add a rustic taste. Special B is a malt used in many Belgian beer styles. It has a robust sugar flavor along with dried fruit, like raisin.
Oats have grown in popularity with brewers who make New England-style IPAs because they add body. Wheat is also popular in the style, thanks to the texture it provides.
There are smoked malts as well. Their flavor and aroma can be polarizing, but there’s beauty in a soft, ashy, woody aroma in a porter or Helles.
While most of the grain grown in the Midwest is destined for food or feed, the portion allotted to beer production is important. Without it, we wouldn’t have beer as we know and love it.
Malt deserves at least a morsel of respect when you enjoy a pint.