Brewing Ingredients, Part 3: Barley Revisited

by Sophie Nelson, [email protected]

The last time I discussed barley, I talked about the specific characteristics that make it perfect for brewing, and the geographic areas in which barley can grow – which included the origin of the idea that wine is somehow fancier than beer. 

This time I’ll talk about what must be done to barley to make it useful for brewing. The process – called malting – turns barley into malted barley or, more simply, “malts.” 

The malting process is a time-consuming, complex activity. The barley must be soaked in water, allowed to start germinating and dried. Then it can be kilned: the step that gives malts nearly all of their unique flavors.

People were brewing beer back in the B.C. times, and one explanation for how the malting process could have been discovered includes people in ancient civilizations making a sort of oatmeal-like meal out of different grains. Letting those grains start to germinate activates their enzymes.

When the grain is mashed up and hot water is added, the enzymes break down the starches into sugars and make something much like Grape-Nuts. People in early civilizations may not have had the scientific understanding of what was happening, but they definitely knew how to get the most out of their food options. 

How this sweet barley mush became beer is still a mystery, but considering that yeast was the next ingredient needed to turn those sugars into alcohol – and wild yeasts float around in the air and live on fruit skins – I’m not sure it’s actually such a big mystery. 

If you ever read a beer label or description and come across a list of malts, pay attention. That information can give insights into the base flavors of the beer and can influence your tasting experience. Because barley is a grain, the flavors that malts give to beer can – and should – be equated to bread products of similar characteristics and color. Malts almost exclusively determine beer color as well. 

There are a few types of kilning that give beer different flavors. The lightest malts are called base malts. Every beer uses them – sometimes exclusively and sometimes with other darker roasts. These include – from lightest to darkest – pilsner, pale, Vienna, mild or Maris Otter, and Munich. 

If some of these names seem familiar, then you’re spot on. Pilsner malts are used for light pilsners, pale for pale ales, Vienna for those elusive Vienna lagers, and Munich for the slightly darker German lagers of the same name. Darker kilned specialty malts include aromatic, melanoidin, biscuit, brown and pale chocolate. 

The next-darkest malts, called crystal or caramel malts, are created through a kilning process called stewing, in which moisture is added to create a sugar crystal in the grain – and, thus, caramel and burnt-sugar flavors. Rather than setting requirements for the color and flavor of these malts, their characteristics are specific to the roaster. 

The darkest category of malts is roasted malts. These include chocolate and black malts, among many others, and they’re used sparingly in recipes alongside base malts to give color and taste. Contrary to what you might think, lighter roasts are sharper and more pungent, and

darker roasts are smoother and more chocolatey – so don’t be afraid to give that dark beer a try! Roasted barley is also included in this category, which includes barley that did not go through the malting process. It’s important for roasty stouts as well. 

Adjuncts – any grain that provides a source of sugars (starches) besides malted barley – should be included here as well. Many styles require the use of adjuncts because of the specific characteristics that they contribute. Some obvious ones are oatmeal stouts, wheat beers and rye beers. Oats and wheat give beer a creamier body, and rye provides a little spice. Corn and rice are also common adjuncts in American macro lagers that help to thin out the body.