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Great Grains

Updated: Sep 27, 2023


The foundation of brewing craft beer is built on the brewing grains, which are the lifeblood of beer. While barley is most common, the category of "grain" is as broad as it is intricate.

The grains most commonly used include barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, rice, rye sorghum, teff and wheat. The barley and wheat must undergo a malting process before they can be used to make beer (the others do not). Malts make up a big part of a beer and significantly contribute to the outcome. They are responsible for the fermentable sugars, some of the flavours and aromas, and the colour of our beer.



What is Malt?

Malt is grain that has been converted into sugar. That sugar is consumed by yeast to create alcohol; in a process called fermentation. Grain becomes malt, which becomes beer.</p>

There are a wide variety of malts that brewers can use, all of which fall into two broad categories: malts which can be steeped (good for extract brewing), and malts which need to be mashed (all-grain brewing required).

Base Malts

Base malts make up the majority of the grist used in all-grain beer, and the variety is, as previously indicated, extensive. Named based on the formation of corn’s on the barley stalk (2-row vs. 6-row), the variety (e.g. Golden Promise, Maris Otter etc), or the region in which it was grown, or malted, Includes:

  • Barley malts: Mild Ale Malt, Munich Malt, Pale Malt, Pilsner Malt, Vienna Malt etc.

  • Non-barley base malts: Rye Malt & Wheat Malt.

  • High-kilned malts: These are responsible for the dark, malty lagers of Europe and have also found a home in some ales because of their unique character. Munich and Vienna malts are the prime examples.

  • American based malts: These are generally mild and fairly neutral.

  • British malts: These tend to be maltier, bready, and similar to biscuits in aroma and flavour.

The European climate gives malts made from Continental barley a clean, "elegant" character. Pilsner malt has a soft, delicate maltiness that practically defines pale lagers. "High-kilned" (heated to a higher temperature at the end of the malting process) are typically used for the darker beers, although mild ale malt belongs to this category too. The darker colour lends these malts a more toasty, malty flavour than you get from lighter base malts.


Caramel & Crystal Malts

Crystal malts are steep-able and generally used to add sweetness and colour to both extract and all-grain brews. They're usually named based on colour. As a general rule, the lighter-coloured crystal malts are more "sweet," while darker crystal malts add roastiness or nuttiness in addition to sweetness.

On the extreme light end sit dextrin(e) malts. They also add dextrin's, which bring body and a thicker mouthfeel. But broadly speaking, anything labelled crystal, caramel, or cara-something are crystal malts.


Kilned & Toasted Malts

This includes malts such as biscuit, amber, special roast, and aromatic malts. Usually used in low quantities to contribute unique flavours.

  • Biscuit Malt: Contributes a light, "saltine cracker" flavour, while aromatic malt is deeper and maltier.

  • Brown & Amber Malt: Are similarly toasted, but brown is darker and more toasty/bready and amber has less of a pretzel-like flavour.

  • Victory Malt: Another light option that sits between biscuit and amber, with characteristics of both.

  • Special Roast: Unique and will impart a slightly darker, reddish colour and has a fairly strong tangy, berry, deep flavour.

Roasted Malts

Roasted malts are any malts or grains that are roasted to a very high degree. Dark, deep, bready and delicious in aroma and flavour. They can be steeped for extract brewing or mashed for all-grain brewing, and add a lot of complexity and colour, even if used in very low quantities. The three most common varieties are:</p>

  • Black Malt: Also called Black Patent Malt, with a chocolate and roasted barley aroma and flavour.

  • Carafa Malts

  • Kiln-Coffee Malt

  • Distaff cousins like debittered black malt and pale chocolate. Roasted malts can be steeped for extract brewing or mashed for all-grain, and add a lot of complexity and colour.

Home brewers and some microbrewers are often reluctant to use roasted malts, but should be encouraged to experiment. Roasted malts are delicious, provided you do not overuse : 10% is about the most you would usually use. Stay below this amount and it's hard to go wrong.


Other Malts

Some malts do not come from barley: oats, rye, wheat, etc. These malts are essentially processed like, and can be treated as, their barley cousins. The difference is in how they're crushed.


Wheat malt can be crushed at the same setting as barley malt, but you will want to test before running a whole batch's worth of rye malt or oat malt through a mill.


Adjunct Grains & Sources of Starch

Adjuncts are un-malted, starchy things (normally understood to be a cereal grain, but both craft and home brewers have been known to use things like pumpkin and potatoes, too).

  • Flaked barley and flaked oats.

  • Maize (Corn).

  • Torrified wheat (a pre-gelatinized, un-malted brewers wheat).

  • Pumpkin/Squash.

  • Potatoes.

  • Rice.

  • Other, any starchy vegetable/grain can be used as an adjunct.

Adjuncts don't have sugars available like crystal malts, so they can't be steeped for extract brewing. They also don't have enzymes like malted grains, so they need to be mashed with base malt to extract their sugars.


The Lovibond Scale

Degrees Lovibond or °L scale is a measure of the colour of a substance, usually beer, whiskey, or sugar solutions. The determination of the degrees Lovibond takes place by comparing the colour of the substance to a series of amber to brown glass slides, usually by a colorimeter.


The scale was devised by Joseph Williams Lovibond. The Standard Reference Method (SRM) and European Brewery Convention (EBC) methods have largely replaced it, with the SRM giving results approximately equal to the °L.

Diastatic Power

Diastatic power refers to the enzymatic power of the malt. The malts ability to break down starches into simpler fermentable sugars during the mashing process. As an example, 6-Row base malt has a higher diastatic power than 2-Row base malt. The scale that is used to determine the diastatic power of a grain is Lintner.

Grains with low diastatic power will not be able to fully utilise their own sugars and maximise alcohol yield unaided.


While grain and adjuncts are an important element in the making of beer, it is ultimately the combination and balance of all the ingredients combined, along with the processes used, that will provide the eventual flavour profile and each in its way, is as important.


A Summary of the Other Key Brewing Elements for Homebrewers

Water

Always get to know your water report for the supply you will be using. You will want to remove Chlorine and/or Chloramine, then look at the alkalinity by checking your mash ph, aiming for c. 5.2 - 5.4ph. The assess the amount of other ions in the water i.e. Calcium, Chloride, Magnesium and Sulphate. The water chemistry can be adjusted with the use of neutralising chemicals and salts, available to purchase from online brewing suppliers. Chloride and Sulphate are the primary ions that will work together in contributing to the flavour and character of your beer.


Hop Pellets

Hops pellets provide aroma, bitterness and flavour in the beer, while hop oils contribute more than just aroma, assisting with the palette feel, flavour stability, foam and lacing. In addition hops have unique anti-microbial properties that help to protect and preserve beer. Hop pellets are available to purchase from online brewing suppliers and can be cold stored in the Nitrogen flushed, sealed foil packaging, until used.


Yeast

You can purchase brewers yeast in dried and liquid formats.in strains that will enable the creation of most common types of beer along with a diverse range of bacteria yeast.


Dried & Liquid Yeast for Brewing

Brewing suppliers provide a wide range of yeast strains for home brewers to use e.g. AEB, Bioform, Brewferm, Lallemand, Jacks, Mangrove, White Lab’s and Wyeast. Along with many other strains of yeast that will enable the brewing of most beer styles, including a diverse range of bacteria for sour beers.


Read more about craft brewing in our related blog articles.


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