Why Malt Matters | Craft Beer & Brewing

Why Malt Matters

It’s the second-largest ingredient in your beer by weight, and yet many brewers are content to keep uncritically plugging away at brewing with grains that were bred and designed to satisfy the needs of large breweries. That is beginning to change.

Josh Weikert 7 months ago

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When it comes to brewing ingredients, there is a significant level of inequality at work. This is true in terms of flavor contributions, cost per batch, difficulty of use, and more, but it’s most true in the context of how much we talk about them. We read (and write) a lot about water: water chemistry, adjustment, the water profile of classic brewing centers, etc.

We read (and write) even more about hops: experimental varieties, whirlpooling vs. dry hopping vs. both, IBU thresholds, ad nauseam. We look at yeast the way a golfer looks at a new driver, as if just buying and using it will create the ester- and phenol-fueled weizen of our dreams, and so we scan the features and characteristics and reviews and vital stats of dozens of yeast strains. But do you know what we almost never discuss? Malt.

Sure, we’ll get into the details of fermentability of crystal malts and whether Crystal 60 makes your beers oxidation- prone. We have a solid handle on diastatic power, protein levels, and free-amino nitrogen (FAN) in a batch of grain. In fact, when you get right down to it, we know a heck of a lot more about how and why malt tastes as it does than we do hops… we just don’t care that much. We walk into the homebrew shop and just ask for “Maris Otter,” even though there may be three or four maltsters from which to choose. Maybe one in ten brewers will have a brand preference, but most can’t explain why (“I’ve just always used it”), and the rest don’t care. Why?

Malt matters. It’s the second-largest ingredient in your batch of beer by weight (behind water), and yet too many brewers are content to keep uncritically plugging away at brewing with grains that were bred and designed to satisfy the needs of large breweries. That, however, is beginning to change. As craft maltsters proliferate across the country and more homebrew shops start stocking their products, more and more homebrewers (and small craft brewers) are leaving the “big maltster” sacks behind in favor of local and/or craft malts. Locavores run amok? Maybe. But it’s hard to argue with the results.

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Malt Deficits

In 2014, the Brewers Association published the results of a 3-year project that pulled together the observations and input of more than fifty brewers, scientists, producers, and organizations. The report, titled Malting Barley Characteristics for Craft Brewers, laid out a number of findings that suggested that craft brewers (and homebrewers) were working with noticeable deficits in product and information. The malting industry was predominantly producing malts that were well-suited to large-scale brewing of adjunct-heavy pale lagers.

As a result, small brewers who were brewing all-grain beers with much more noticeable flavors were left to their own devices to work out how to fit a square peg into a round hole. The report cited the challenges of a lack of common terminology and shared meanings of sensory-analysis vocabulary, the biological/chemical challenges offered by the use of “adjunct-friendly” malts, the recipe challenges created by using malts comprised of different varieties of barley from different harvests, and more. It also recommended “bridge” steps that the BA and craft brewers could take.

These concerns—and a great many others—are being addressed by the emergence of a small-but-meaningful and growing craft-maltster sector. From a handful of craft maltsters in 2010 to more than 100 today, brewers of all types have increasing access to malts that offer a variety of benefits, whether they be single-harvest, locally sourced, custom-kilned, all-grain suitable, or all of the above. Following the same arc traveled by craft breweries and homebrewing and small hops farms, craft malting is now a real option for brewers large and small and smaller.

The Craft Maltsters Are Here

Although craft maltsters are more commonly located in the Northeast (fueled by a larger supply of smaller farms), they can be found all over the United States and Canada. Most sell directly to customers of any size, and their products are also carried in dozens of homebrew-supply shops (including some online retailers). Access isn’t a question at this point. But what is it that they’re selling? And do the differences matter? I checked in with prominent homebrewers and authors Malcolm Frazer and Denny Conn (among others) for their input.

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The harvest matters, and many craft maltsters source from local and regional farms: to qualify for membership in the Craft Maltsters Guild, maltsters must use grain from within a 500-mile radius. Craft maltsters work with farmers to select specific barley strains for cultivation and further breeding/development, targeting small brewer–friendly characteristics. Malcolm Frazer of Brulosophy.com notes that their research supports the idea that even base-grain variations are noticeable, but subtle. “I often use the analogy of speaking in a low voice in church vs. at a rock concert. If it’s a complex Russian imperial with loads of character malts, maybe you can’t tell, maybe you can.”

What comes into the malthouse is only part of the equation, though. Denny Conn, coauthor of Experimental Brewing and cohost (with Drew Beechum) of its companion podcast, says, “The type of barley makes some difference; what I’ve found makes much more difference is how the maltster treats that grain.” Comparing different products comprised of the same barley is a great way to see how the work done by the maltsters affects the finished product. “A lot of craft maltsters use Full Pint barley. It does seem to have a different flavor from what the bigger maltsters, such as Great Western, use. But comparing Full Pint from three different craft maltsters, I found a big difference in flavor and performance.” Frazer concurs: “Maltster is to grain as chef is to egg.”

Given the relatively small scale of craft maltsters’ production, you will likely pay a premium for craft malts. What you get, though, is a specialized (and even a customizable) product of clear origins—and as craft maltsters grow in number and scale of production, prices have started to come down. Currently, prices generally run 10 to 30 percent higher than standard malts, though many craft malts are competitively priced compared to the premium malts (think floor-malted Pilsner) on the market.

Given the more-pronounced flavors found in craft malts, that’s a more apt comparison. The product that craft maltsters are offering provides a variety of other advantages in exchange for those higher costs, too. Craft malts (especially those using local barley) have an advantage in maintaining freshness. They offer a product of more-accurate definition: just what’s in that sack of pale malt or Maris Otter will vary from sack to sack despite having the same name stamped on the front, but smaller maltsters are in a position to create a homogenous product in smaller batches. They also have the freedom to experiment with new varieties of barley and other cereal grains that may be available only in smaller quantities. Craft maltsters, in short, benefit from the same advantages that craft brewers and homebrewers have over large- and mega-scale competitors.

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Craft malts are, I believe, especially well suited to homebrewers, who are in a position to experiment with these malts in a variety of recipes, batches, and ratios. Though craft malts introduce increased costs, homebrewers can offset some of those costs by layering craft malts with less-expensive grains and buying all of their ingredients in bulk (especially hops, which can cut your costs by more than half). Some craft maltsters also offer the option of customizing your orders with specific kilning times and temperatures: You’ll never find 75L Crystal Rye on the shelves, but a craft maltster such as Double Eagle Malt in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, might be able to get the job done for you! Others also offer specialized smoking and other treatments on their stock malts.

Using Craft Malts

So there’s what you get, and then there’s how you use it. Craft malts are not all the same (which is kind of the point), and you should always check malt-analysis sheets and adjust your expectations accordingly! To the extent that we can generalize across them, though, there are some recommendations we can offer.

Several of my homebrewing colleagues noted that craft malts tend to be slightly undermodified compared to the malts we’ve come to expect from the major maltsters. This, though, is not something you should consider detrimental. First, a perusal of malt-analysis sheets from a variety of craft maltsters leads me to argue that these are lightly modified rather than undermodified—a distinction that matters, since the BA white paper cited earlier indicates that most malts are overmodified. Most of these malts still have plenty of diastatic power to convert an all-grain batch, though it might be a good idea to limit adjunct usage if using them. If you’re concerned about modification levels, a step mash is always an option. Annie Johnson, 2013 Homebrewer of the Year, says that flavor intensity increases with step mashing craft malts: “I find when I do step mashes with malt from small boutique maltsters, the beers’ flavors vary greatly—it’s like two different beers!”

This light modification also has structural/procedural benefits for your brewing. Lower protein content and lower levels of FAN are features, not bugs, when it comes to preventing “hot” fermentations and have the added benefit of increasing flavor stability. Protein levels are something of a mixed bag in craft malts, however. My initial impression upon brewing with craft malts was that they were very protein-rich, but this turned out to be a malt house–specific issue. Most have lower protein levels than their large-maltster equivalents, but (I say again) check your malt-analysis sheets to be sure. Lower protein levels also translate into greater clarity. This makes craft malts ideal for those who prefer a quicker-and-clearer beer, especially those rushed lagers.

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Finally, taste, taste, taste. Don’t assume that these malts will taste the same in your recipes just because they’re marketed as “comparable to Munich malt” or “a lightly kilned pale malt.” Those generic statements aside, they’re going to taste different. Good recipe formulation starts by tasting your ingredients, so get to chewing those grains. Not only will the flavor profile of each become more clear to you, but this can also provide clues as to the modification level of the malt: Harder grains, especially toward the ends, are likely to be less-modified. Before your first batch, talk to other brewers who have used the malt and read the malt-flavor descriptions on the maltster’s website as well as other online reviews. The information and experiences available will help you determine whether other recipe adjustments are necessary.

One recipe adjustment that will almost certainly be necessary is your hopping regimen. Every brewer with whom I discussed this article indicated that they increased both bittering and flavor hops. Regardless of malt type, recipe, or style, craft malts tended to mute hops character.

A Period of Adjustment

As brewers, we are often (rightly) wary of changes in our brewing process, equipment, and ingredients. If you make the jump to craft malts, you’re in for a period of adjustment as your recipes and process reckon with this new ingredient. While this is necessarily risky, the process is generally brief and—important to bear in mind—you can always go back.

Most won’t, though. Craft malts are the natural progression of an ingredient universe that has been expanding for 40 years or more in the craft-brewing and homebrewing world. Do your homework, round up two or three homebrewing friends, and pick yourselves up a sack—I think you’ll be glad you did.

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