Malt Mat­ters

As craft malt­sters pro­lif­er­ate across the coun­try and more home­brew shops start stock­ing their prod­ucts, more and more home­brew­ers (and small craft brew­ers) are aug­ment­ing their sup­ply of “big malt­ster” sacks with lo­cal and/or craft malts.

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents - By Josh Weik­ert

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.

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.

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.

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.

Craft malts are, I be­lieve, es­pe­cially well suited to home­brew­ers, who are in a po­si­tion to ex­per­i­ment with these malts

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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