Malt: The Spirit Animal of Beer

Do you like beer? I’m going to go ahead and assume so since you’re reading this blog. Guess what? That means you like malt. I hear you; you protest saying that you’re not even completely sure what malt is so how on earth could you have such feelings for it! I must present only one point to silence such outcries: if you like the fact that there is alcohol in beer then you like malt. That’s right, I can hear the crickets now, gotcha.

Let’s get back to the real question though, what is malt? Malt starts as raw grain, barley for the most part. This grain goes through a process called. . . drumroll please. . . malting (shocker, I know). Malting involves several steps that are crucial for ending up with malt that contains the right amount of starches, proteins, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, etc. The process begins with steeping the raw grain in water. This kickstarts germination within the grain. During germination, enzymes in the grain begin breaking down proteins and carbohydrates. This results in essential amino acids, starch, and sugar. After about 4 or 5 days the grain is put into a kiln and dried. The heating and drying halts germination. This is very important because the grain is trying to use all of its goodness to grow a new plant but we want all that goodness to make beer! Sorry grains, plants are cool but beer is cooler.

Depending on the type of malt being made things get a little different here. Base malts, which make up the majority of the malt used in most beer recipes, are valued for the fermentable sugar they contribute to a beer along with plentiful enzymes and other essential thingamajigs (yes, that’s a technical term). The kilning process for base malts is relatively delicate and leaves these malts with a light golden color. Common flavors contributed by base malts are fresh bread, cracker, light grassiness or earth, and a hint of light honey. Caramel and crystal malts are special in that they go through a unique process. The best term to describe this is that they are “stewed” during the kilning process. Due to this, a lot of the malt’s sugar ends up being caramelized. These sugars aren’t great at being fermented anymore but they contribute a lot of interesting flavors. I bet you can guess at least one flavor these malts contribute to beer – yep, caramel. Beyond this, flavors of toast, toffee, nuts, honey, and molasses.

There’s a darker side to malt as well. This category is comprised of many products including black, chocolate, and other dark-sounding malts. These malts spend more time in the kiln at higher temperatures. Many of the things we look for in malt (sugars, enzymes, etc.) have been pretty much destroyed by the intense kilning but what’s left are malts that provide rich, and often intense, flavor. Coffee, dark chocolate, smoke, roastiness, even a little char in some cases, are all provided by dark malts. If you love Irish Death, and you definitely do because we have to make a lot of it to keep up with your seemingly unquenchable thirst for that yummy elixir, then you owe dark malts a big thank you.

Here at Iron Horse we use many different malts to make a variety of beers. Seriously, you’d be amazed how much malt we go through. Every week we receive several towering pallet-fulls of malt that we sort and store in our mill room. When the time comes to make a beer, we weigh out all the different malts needed for that beer and dump them into a hopper. We then turn on our mill which begins crushing up the malt. This makes all those goodies in the malt that I mentioned earlier more accessible during the brewing process.

Once milled, the malt goes into the first vessel of our brewing system; the mash tun. In the mash tun; the malt is mixed with water and heated to activate enzymes and better extract sugars. When mashing is complete, it is heated up further to stop those overeager enzymes and then transferred to the lauter tun. Here the liquid portion is drained from the malt and sent to the boil kettle. This is the wort and will eventually be the beer that you (and I, because I’m definitely consuming my fair share of our beer as well) drink. Back in the lauter tun, the grain gets sprayed with more water in order to extract as much of the sugars and other goodies from it as we possibly can. This liquid seeps through the grain and gets transferred to the boil kettle with the rest of the wort. At this point, the malt is nearing the end of its journey. We’ve taken all we want from it which sounds harsh but that’s the way it goes in brewing. The malt is now “spent grain” and we put it in a silo out back which gets emptied on a regular basis. The now defunct malt ends up being fed to cattle. I think this is pretty cool and I like to imagine there’s some pretty big Iron Horse fans amongst the cow community.

I’m not going to argue that one beer ingredient is more important than another but malt is freaking important. The life cycle from raw grain through malting, brewing, and then back to the field for the hungry cows is incredible. It’s the kind of thing worth pondering while drinking a beer. Speaking of which, I’m going to stop writing now and go do that. Bye.

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