Malt Revealed

Homebrewers today enjoy a wider selection of malts than ever -- so wide, in fact, that it’s easy to become overwhelmed.

Dave Carpenter Feb 19, 2014 - 5 min read

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What’s the difference between black malt and roasted barley? Why can I steep some malts but not others?

If you don’t know Carastan from Caramunich, you’re not alone. But even basic fluency in the language of malt will help you tremendously in your homebrewing journey. When you understand the similarities and differences among the many brewing grains available to you, you’ll be equipped to formulate recipes and infer how they might taste.

Base Malts

Base malt makes up the bulk of the grist (grain bill) and needs to be mashed to convert the grain’s starches to fermentable sugars.

  • Pilsner malt forms the base of many European light lagers.
  • Six-row malt is used primarily in mass-produced American lagers.
  • Two-row pale malt is the foundation for most American craft ales.
  • Maris Otter and Golden Promise are full-flavored British malts that produce the signature flavors associated with English and Scottish ales.
  • Munich malts and Vienna malt are kilned to a darker color than other malts and lend bready depth to styles like Bock and Oktoberfest.
  • Wheat and rye malts are used in a variety of styles but can be tricky to work with in large quantities.

Extract brewers can think of extract as a kind of base malt. Popular malts like pale, wheat, and Maris Otter are available in both liquid and dry malt extract forms, but with few exceptions, extract is made from a blend of malts rather than from a single grain. Wheat extract, for example, is usually about 65 percent wheat and 35 percent barley, while rye extract is often a 50/50 blend of rye and barley.


Caramel and Crystal Malts

Caramel/crystal malts have undergone a special process that essentially pre-mashes the grains and captures the sugars within each kernel. The malts are then roasted to caramelize those sugars. The darker the caramel malt, the more intense the flavor. Caramel/crystal malts can be mashed (all-grain) or simply steeped (extract) to liberate their sugars.

American brewers usually prefer the term caramel malt and classify this category according to a single color. So, Caramel 40 (or C-40) has a color rating of 40°L, Caramel 120 (C-120) is 120°L, and so on. British maltsters, on the other hand, call them crystal malts and specify a range of color. Further complicating nomenclature is that many maltsters have trademarked names for their own particular versions. For example, the following are similar, although by no means equivalent:

  • Caramel 10-20 ≈ Bairds Light Carastan (GB) and Weyermann Carahell (DE)
  • Caramel 30-40 ≈ Simpsons Caramalt (GB), Bairds Carastan (GB), and Weyermann Caramunich I (DE)
  • Caramel 40-50 ≈ Weyermann Caramunich II (DE)
  • Caramel 50-60 ≈ Simpsons Medium Crystal (GB) and Weyermann Caramunich III (DE)
  • Caramel 70-80 ≈ Simpsons Dark Crystal (GB)
  • Special B is an intensely flavored Belgian crystal malt, usually 100°L to 150°L that imparts a deep caramel flavor along with what is frequently perceived as raisin and burned sugar flavors.

Roasted Malts

These malts have been roasted in a fashion very similar to that of coffee and contribute flavors of chocolate and coffee. Roasted malts include

  • Black malt (black patent malt)
  • Chocolate malt
  • Dehusked/debittered roasted malts
  • Roasted barley

Note that roasted barley isn’t actually a malt. It’s unmalted barley that has simply been roasted, and it is a key ingredient in Irish stouts. Roasted malts can be mashed or steeped.


Strictly speaking, adjuncts aren’t malts at all because they haven’t undergone the malting process. But these grains are nonetheless included when speaking of malts in general to refer to sources of fermentable sugars.

  • Maize (corn)
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Unmalted barley, rye, or wheat

Grain adjuncts need to be mashed to be of use to the brewer. Most homebrewers use flaked versions of these adjuncts, which can be included in the mash as is. Other forms usually require what’s known as a cereal mash to make the starches available for conversion.