Mastering Malt For Crafting Beer: Part 1

With all the malt out there, it’s difficult to know which kinds of grain are responsible for what, when it comes down to making beer. Of course, a master brewer would know all about this (and what an amazing title that is) but for the rest of us, it takes some educating.

Today, we’re going to present some of the most important facets of choosing malt and how it will pass on positive and possibly negative effects to your brew.

Whether you’re a homebrewer or helping deliver gallons of brew to your local alehouse crowd, there’s never been a more difficult time to enter the brewing scene. There’s a more diverse array of styles being pumped out than ever.

The Mechanisms of Action

Since the brewing industry is now expected to deliver many types of malt, and the barley malt supply chain should likewise evolve rapidly to meet the very different needs of all-malt beer brewers, it’s important to understand why.

The Brewers Association brewers have identified malt supply mismatch as a potential impediment to growing their brands.

Basically, if there isn’t access to certain kinds of malts to produce new varieties of beer, the market can’t continue to grow. Imagine if only pilsner malt was readily available. The beer market would be starving for access to other styles.

To produce all-malt beer brands, craft brewers seek barley malts with several key components:

  • Distinctive flavors and aromas

  • Lower free amino nitrogen (“FAN”)

  • Lower Total Protein

  • Lower Diastatic Power (“DP”)

  • Lower Kolbach Index (ratio of Soluble Protein to Total Protein, or “S/T”)

If you’ve read the basic homebrewers bible, Charlie Papazian’s Joy of Homebrewing, then the term Diastatic may be familiar.

Diastatic enzymes, we're really talking about three different enzymes: alpha-amylase, beta-amylase, and limit dextrinase. Each one has its own job, converting different types of starch into different types of sugar. As you know, sugar and yeast do a great job of making alcohol.

These are malts that will perform well in the mash and lead to a full spectrum of desirable flavors.

Malts that meet these criteria differ significantly from the current suite of available barley malts produced in North America. However, the market is always shifting to bring these qualities to optimum levels.

The demand for such malts will grow significantly as craft beer production increases.

A Short History Of Malt Selection

From roughly the time that beer came out of prohibition until the 1980s, the U.S. beer market was generally characterized by a few trends:

• Increased product uniformity and prominence of lighter lager styles

• The decreasing number of brewing companies

• The increasing dominance of a relatively small number of brands of adjunct lagers

• Slowly decreasing original gravities

• Relatively homogenous barley malt needs

During this time malt producers made important advances in yield, disease/stress tolerance, extract and digestibility. Though a lot of the beer produced in this time was very much of one style, and color, this allows maltsters to be in the position they are in today.

Nonetheless, prior to the advent of craft brewery companies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, barley growers and the malting industry responded to relatively uniform brewer needs by developing a relatively small number of high diastatic power, high FAN malt varieties suitable for adjunct brewing.

By definition, the malt used to produce beer was nearly all consumed by large producers of adjunct lagers.

Today’s Beer

By contrast, the current beer market can be characterized very differently:

• Rapidly increasing product diversity and proliferation of all-malt beer styles

• The rapidly increasing number of brewing companies

• Malt brand growth

• Increased original gravities of all-malt brands

• Large adjunct brewer barley needs which are diverging rapidly from each other

• All-malt brewer barley needs that have diverged significantly from the needs of adjunct brewers

Today’s beer market is far more diverse.

It seems like every township, city, or county has a couple breweries to speak of. New brewing companies are also attempting a variety of styles, adding to the diversity in the current marketplace.

The earliest successful craft brewers now own maturing and rapidly growing brands, some of which are now prominent national brands like Rogue and Stone Brewing.

U.S. craft brewers have access to, and increasingly use, diverse malts from around the world in order to flavor differentiate their brands from all others. In early 2014, craft beer volume accounted for roughly 7.8% of total beer volume in the U.S.; but craft brewers consumed over 25% of the malt used by all U.S. brewers. This is quite a shocking statistic that equates to a lesser extraction rate in the craft brewery at large.

Next week we will continue to define how to choose malt for your brews and why.