Starting with malt
A guided tour through the art, science and history of our favourite 7,000-year-old beverage with beer columnist Brent Milcz.
As a brewer, talking about how beer is born is a bit of a rabbit hole. Where to start? What to leave out? To help demystify our favourite 7,000-year-old libation and up your brewery tour game, a grain-to-glass crash course seems like a logical starting point.
To brew a beer, we first have to design it. While there is no universally agreed upon list, it is worth a mention that there are more than 100 recognized styles and sub-styles of beer!
In the brewery we start by thinking of a beer style to brew and working out the details on paper first.
Ask any German beer purist, and they’ll tell you that beer should only be made from malt, hops, water and yeast.
While we may not always adhere to that so strictly in North America, these are “the big four.” Each is equally important, but not equally complicated in concept. Malt is a mouthful, and a good place to start.
What Is Malt?
Grains are the backbone of a beer. Depending on the style, we can use many different grains, like barley, wheat, spelt, oats, triticale, sorghum, or something else. Most beer is made predominately from malted barley (known simply as “malt” in shorthand), but wheat and oats are also very commonly used in lesser quantities. Brewers will typically talk about grains and malt interchangeably (and maybe a little confusingly), but malt is specifically grain that has been specially prepared.
Malt is prepared by a maltser, who force-germinates grains like barley by steeping them in water, which makes the grain’s sugar available to the brewer. He then kiln-dries the grain kernels in batches to varying degrees to create malts ranging from very light to very dark and with a wide range of flavour profiles (cracker, biscuit, caramel, coffee, chocolate and more).
Malting is a whole separate industry in its own right, and this range of different malts becomes the brewer’s flavour and colour palette for painting a beery masterpiece. The types of malts and quantities we choose to brew with can be used to accurately calculate on paper our beer’s sugar content and colour.
We can then head into the brewery. Our chosen malts are cracked open in a mill and steeped in hot water again, in a process known as mashing. Mashing finishes the sugar conversion process, dissolves the sugar and infuses into the water the colour profile of the malts used.
Simply put, a light-coloured beer is made from light coloured grains, while dark beers use darker, more heavily kilned malts.
Lower alcohol beers generally require less grain than bigger beers. Guinness, for example, has a roasty finish and nearly black colour because a percentage of its malt has been kilned nearly to the point of charring.
As Guinness is a light beer in terms of alcohol content (4.2 per cent), brewing it would require less grain than a 5.4 per cent Heineken. We can also use mash water temperature to control our sugar profile and eventual alcohol content. After our steeping (mashing) is complete, we have a sugary, beer-coloured substance known as “wort” (rhymes with “shirt”). The grain is strained off in a process known as lautering, and, as we’ll learn more about later, brewer’s yeast will ferment the wort sugars into alcohol.
To summarize, malt provides our colour, our sugar for fermentation, and various “malty” flavour characteristics.
Next time: hops.
Brent Milcz is the head brewer for Carnarvon’s Boshkung Brewing Company.