While hops often take a center stage in beer discussions, malt is the essential backbone of beer. It provides us the color, a large amount of the flavor, and all the building blocks that we need to make sugars to feed the yeast. How does it do all this? Well, I’m glad no one asked because I’m going to tell you anyway.
What is malt?
Malt, strictly speaking, is malted barley. Other things can be malted but they aren’t necessarily called malt. So to recap, all malt is barley but not all barley is malt.
How is malt produced?
The malting process goes something like this: The grain is harvested and brought in to the malting plant. Here it is tested with all kinds of fancy equipment like near-infrared spectrometers for a number of parameters and flaws. These include tests for protein levels, size, water content, etc. It is also checked for molds like Fusarium which can result in gushing bottles and people barfing because of a vomitoxin (nasty, I know). If the crop fails to meet specs, it must be sold for feed at much lower prices. After storage the barley is steeped in water to wake up the embryo. The kernel is then allowed to germinate to a certain point of growth. This is called modification. During this time, the walls that encapsulate the starch are broken down and enzymes are produced that will allow us to break down the starch to fermentable sugars. Since we want most of that energy stored in the kernel to be used for delicious beer production, the maltster puts the grain in a kiln to kill the embryo and dry out the malt. Heat is then increased to lightly toast the malt for color and flavor development. There are various other kilning regimes to create the various specialty malts that give us an infinite range of beer recipes that can be produced.
Hug a Maltster Day
If you know one, give them a big hug. They are one of the many pieces of the beer puzzle that allow us to make a consistent product year round and year after year. They take all the variability from different crop years and do a really good job of producing a product that has a pretty high degree of consistency. As brewers, we can’t rely on things like vintage and change our product all the time. So the consistency starts with the malt and ends with us and the brewing process.