Learning Lab: Distinguishing the Types of Crystal Malt

To avoid being overwhelmed by all the options, try focusing on a manageable subset of grain—crystal (aka caramel) malts. Using the mini-batch (1 gallon/3.8 liters) method, we demonstrate how you can learn to distinguish among the types of crystal malt.

Jester Goldman Jan 26, 2019 - 11 min read

Learning Lab: Distinguishing the Types of Crystal Malt Primary Image

Crystal malt is also called caramel malt, which reflects the color and flavor that it adds to beer. Some purists distinguish between the two terms, pointing out that British crystal malts are produced in a roaster, while caramel malts may be made in a roaster or a kiln, but we’ll sidestep that distinction. In either case, the barley is soaked and allowed to sprout, then the wet barley is heated for a time, allowing for saccharification of the kernel within the husk.

Then, it’s roasted or kilned at a higher temperature, which darkens the color and converts the sugars into unfermentable dextrins.

Crystal malt is typically sold by color from 10–120°Lovibond. The darker the color, the more pronounced the flavor, with the high end possibly contributing some bitter astringency. In the lower and middle ranges, crystal malt can add a nice nutty caramel complexity, but the sweetness can be cloying and simplistic if you use too much. As a result, it’s recommended to hold it down to 5–10 percent of the grain bill in your recipes.

It All Starts with a Plan

Our goal is to learn how to distinguish the types of crystal malt and understand what they contribute. This lab examines two different aspects. For the first phase, we work with three different Lovibond levels of crystal malt. These will vary not only in color but also in mouthfeel and malt character.


We’ll follow a mini-batch strategy similar to the one we used in the hops lab (see “Learning Lab: Hops Aroma and Flavor” in the June/July 2018 issue). For this lab, you should plan on four 1-gallon batches of beer. The first batch will serve as a control, with no crystal malt added. The other three batches will include steeping 40, 80, and 120°L crystal malt before the boil. We’ll aim for the equivalent of about 7 percent of the grist to hit the recommended level. For our baseline recipe, that’s about 2.5 ounces (71 g) of crushed malt.

After you start the first batches, the second half of our experiment explores what happens when you use too much of a good thing. This phase will use each of the same three crystal malts but in more than the recommended amount. Doubling the malt weight would put us at about 15 percent of the grain bill, but we want to get a stronger impression, so we’ll round up to 8 ounces (227 g) of malt, equivalent to 20 percent of the grist. Going over the top like this is a good way to see how crystal malt can over-balance a beer. This will also give you a deeper sense of how the crystal-malt character changes as you work with the darker versions.

Baseline Batch

This baseline recipe is a simple extract pale ale.
Volume (after boil): 1 gallon (3.8 liters)
OG: Phase 1, 1.054; Phase 2, 1.058
IBUs: 40–45
1.25 lb (567 g) light dry malt extract (DME)
0.125 oz (3.5 g) Centennial [10% AA] at 60 minutes
0.125 oz (3.5 g) Cascade [6% AA] at 30 minutes
0.125 oz (3.5 g) Cascade [6% AA] at 5 minutes
1/2 package Safale US-05 American Ale yeast

Phase 1: 2.5 oz (71 g) crushed crystal malt (each batch will use a different Lovibond level—40, 80, 120°L)
Phase 2: 8 oz (227 g) crushed crystal malt (each batch will use a different Lovibond level—40, 80, 120°L)
Note that you’ll be making one control batch without any crystal malt. For that beer, skip the steeping step.
Fill your pot with 1 gallon (3.8 l) water plus the make-up for evaporation loss. Put the crushed crystal malt (phase 1: 2.5 oz/71 g, phase 2: 8 oz/227 g) of the target Lovibond level into a small nylon grain bag. Turn the heat to medium and allow the crushed grain to steep, stirring occasionally. After about 20 minutes or when the temperature hits 165°F (74°C), pull the grain bag out of the water to avoid extracting tannins from the grain.
Take the brew pot off the heat and add the DME. Stir well to dissolve, then place the pot back onto the burner and bring to a boil. Boil for 60 minutes following the timing of the hops additions in the recipe.
Chill the wort to pitching temperature (use a cold-water bath or immersion chiller). Transfer the wort to a gallon (3.8 l) jug and pitch the yeast.
After primary fermentation has finished, bottle with 0.8 oz (23 g) per batch of dissolved priming sugar. Allow two weeks for carbonation.
Repeat the above process for each of the crystal malts in phase one and phase two. In total, this should give you seven 1-gallon batches.


Doing the Comparisons

Phase 1: Sibling Rivalry
Part one of our tasting session will focus on the four beers from phase one. Pour a sample of each of the beers and look at their color. As you’d expect, they range from the relatively light control beer to the darkest 120°L batch, with the crystal-malt beers each featuring some degree of amber color. You should also note the head retention, which should be stronger in the beers with crystal malt.

Take a sniff of each glass. It’s beer, so you’ll get a mix of hops, esters, and malt, but the crystal-malt samples will emphasize the malt more than the control batch. The malt character may be noticeably different, too. While all of the crystal-malt beers will offer some amount of caramel, you’re more likely to get nutty or mild roasty scents from the 120°L batch.

Next, take a sip or two of the control beer. Get a good sense of the balance between hops flavor, bitterness, and malt. Roll the beer across your tongue to gauge the body. Once you’ve taken its measure, cleanse your palate with a saltine cracker and some water. Move on to the 40°L beer. Go through the same exercise of evaluation. How does the balance differ from the control? Are the hops more subdued? Is it sweeter? In particular, do you pick up any caramel character? You should notice that the beer is less thin-bodied. If it doesn’t seem that obvious, take a sip of water and go back to the control beer. Swirl a mouthful and swallow. Then rinse and go back to the 40°L sample. The side-by-side comparison should make the difference clearer. Write down your observations contrasting the two beers.

Do the same for the 80°L and 120°L beers. After noting your initial perceptions, always rinse and go back to the earlier samples to pick up on the differences. The darker beers should offer more malt complexity, bringing in some of those toffee, nutty, and toasty flavors. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better or that you should like them more. You may even think the 120°L beer is a bit much for the relatively mild base recipe, pulling it out of style for an American pale ale. The goal is to get a sense of how the malts differ so you can choose the right one when you’re developing a recipe.


Phase 2: Gimme Some More
Now let’s dive into the deep end of our crystal-malt experiment. We’ll compare the three phase-two beers, but you’ll also need the first-round beers on hand for comparison. Pour samples of each of the heavy crystal-malt beers. Notice that each is significantly darker than its first-round version, with the 120°L beer moving beyond amber into brown-ale territory. If your glassware is clean, the head formation and retention will likely seem a little better in this round.

Run through the same evaluation process with this set of beers. Check out the aroma and flavor. The caramel character will be much stronger, dominating the balance, turning the base pale ale into something very different. The pleasant caramel that added depth to the round-one beers should come across as sweeter and chewier. You may also get some astringency. As a result, these beers will likely seem one dimensional and less palate pleasing.

As the Lovibond rating goes up, the cloying sweetness builds along with the astringency, which will increase your perception of bitterness. You probably won’t enjoy the heavy 120°L beer for this reason.

Compare the overdone crystal-malt beers with their more balanced versions, paying special attention to the round-one 120°L beer and the heavy 40°L sample. These two are about the same color, but the malt character will be quite different because the additional roasting for the 120°L malt makes deeper changes to husks and dextrines.

Despite the big crystal-malt beers being less drinkable, they do give a sense of what the malt can offer in larger amounts. If you want to do some graduate work, consider making another set in the middle ground between these, with about 4 oz (113 g) of each malt, and see how they fit in. This may help you find your palate’s limits for each malt. While 15 percent 40°L malt might be workable, you may prefer to keep 120°L malt at 5 percent of the grist at most.

You could also do a 10°L crystal-malt batch to explore the lighter end of the range.

Applying Your Lessons

This tasting experience provides a good foundation for your future recipe formulation. Think about the target style and how the flavors you’ve identified could contribute to it. You’ll have a better sense which crystal malt would be complementary and how much to use.