As brewers, we get four (plus?) ingredients with which we hope to make an example of one of the most majestic creations mankind has stumbled into. I won’t argue which of the four is the most important, but I’ll tell you, if it ain’t got malt, it ain’t beer. We are so fortunate these days to have such a dizzying array of malts available to the homebrewer and commercial brewer alike, it can border on scary trying to pick the right grain bill for your next ever-closer-to-perfect brew effort.
Of the plethora of hairs split over a grist—and there are many—you may have seen the option for “floor-malted” base malt (as in the recipes for Traffic Jam on the Autobahn, The Bitter Earl English Pale Ale, Helles I Know, Blackberry Farm’s Classic Saison, and “Make Your Best Pre-Prohibition Lager”.
Although I’m certain a decent and drinkable beer has been made from sweeping up the detritus from your local homebrew supply store’s grain-room floor, this is not what we’re talking about. Floor malting is a process of sprouting and drying the barley seed by spreading and shoveling it over a finely grated floor during the course of a few days. (For more details on the floor-malting process, see “Floor Malting” in The Oxford Companion to Beer.) It’s a bit more labor-intensive than modern pneumatic drum malting and therefore a smidge more expensive to produce and purchase, but there are enough die-hard fans who prize floor-malted base malts for their deep, rich flavors to warrant a closer look at what makes it different.
A Bit of History
Truly, the story deserves more than we have space for here, but suffice it to say that the idea of shunting grain from one higher floor level to another lower floor level as it evolves from seed to sprout, breathing off excess heat and CO2 on the way, was progressive in its day. When seasonal workers were plentiful, this process successfully produced a consistently stable malt that would last through the warm season until the next crop became available. (Floor malting wasn’t possible during the summer because barley germinates unevenly when the ambient temperature rises higher than 57°F/14°C.)
The labor was plentiful and cheap, and the beer was good. In the mid-1800s with advent of the rudiments of refrigeration, Continental maltsters began to get a leg up on the British Isles, and the need for a more year-round malting process mothered inventions. Drum malting, whereby the grain was churned in a more temperature-controlled environment, produced much higher yields with less human labor and allowed for a much longer malting season than the naturally air-conditioned floor-malt houses.
As with most things in the world, this efficiency came at the cost of sheared rootlet and bruised malt kernels, and pneumatic drum malting was not welcomed whole-heartedly. Many malting houses continued for decades producing malts at a lower yield, assuring the brewer their quality was worth the extra price.
As an aside, after World War II, with shifts in the labor market and the lack of California barley being shipped to the United Kingdom and Europe, there was a period when floor-malted barley made a lot of sense from a labor and grain-supply perspective. The increased yield of adapting an existing malt house to a pneumatic drum–malting operation was outweighed by the costs. Most of the now extant floor maltsters enjoyed a bit of a heyday in this era, and the fact that they are still around is testament to the quality of malt that is produced from this method.
Floor Malting Today
The number of commercial malting houses practicing traditional floor malting might fit onto one of my not large hands. Weyermann Specialty Malts in Bamberg, Germany, is very proud of their floor-malted line, which focuses on Moravian barley and wheat, for producing authentic Czech-style beers. But even they will tell you how minor the flavor differences are between their Floor Malted Bohemian Pilsner and their standard Bavarian Pilsner. The aroma wheels (at top) tell the story.
But we don’t drink numbers, do we? In fact, the Moravian barley is prized across the globe, and I have to agree that this malt stands alone when trying to make the tastiest and most authentic Bohemian Pilsner. And a Bohemian Pilsner is the sort of beer that is difficult enough as it is that you may as well jump in with your best chance at the perfect grist.
For the record, there is a buzz about Weyermann Floor-Malted Bohemian Pilsner being undermodified in order to facilitate a traditional triple decoction mash. I’ve confirmed with Stefan Gottschall at Weyermann Specialty Malts that this is not true. The Bohemian line is fully modified and perfectly acceptable for use in a single-infusion mash regimen. If you are looking for an authentic Czech flavor, don’t worry that you can’t spend ten hours conducting a controlled burn to produce wort!
But I digress. Back to maltsters who still use traditional floor malting. In the United Kingdom, Crisp Malting Group also runs a small floor-malt operation out of Scotland. Their floor-malted Maris Otter was previously known as Gleneagles, now rebranded as #19 (sexy name, right?) and has been produced in the same way for the past fifty plus years. I have made waaay too many excellent beers to say it’s not worth the additional cost, but I should say that a side-by-side ESB using Crisp Maris Otter and Gleneagles produced two incredibly similar beers.
Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, we have Warminster Maltings Limited. Another holdout for floor-malted barley, they lay claim to being the oldest floor-malting facility in Great Britain with more than 200 years running. Sadly, I have not yet had the pleasure of tasting a beer made from their malt, let alone of brewing with it, but here is a recipe that uses their floor-malted Maris Otter.
Having had the pleasure of tasting beers brewed by folks with double my brewing years under their belt and of rookies who have availed themselves of the ocean of knowledge available to the new brewer these days, I can say both that ingredients don’t matter, and ingredients definitely matter. If you know what you’re doing, you will help yeast make excellent beer. If you know what you’re doing helping yeast make excellent beer, you will appreciate the nuance and diversity of ingredients available to you in this golden age of craft beer.
AROMA WHEEL CHARTS: COURTESY WEYERMANN SPECIALTY MALTS