“We did not domesticate wheat; wheat domesticated us.”
-Yuval Noah Harari
If water is the life-blood of a brew, grain is the backbone. It provides the necessary raw materials for yeast to turn water into beer. Unlike some of the other essential elements to the brew process, most of the affects of malt are surprisingly easy to detect, even aside from the sweetness they produce. The types of grain used provide color, flavor, even alcohol content (just to name a few.) The determining factor comes down to the grain bill, or the variations and quantities of malt used.
“Malt” (or “malting”) is technically a process, not a grain. It is the way grain becomes suitable for fermentation, through an arduous system of steeping, germinating, and then drying. “Malt”, therefore, refers to grain post-process.
It is also important to note that many types of grain may be used and certainly have a big impact on the outcome. Wheat, for instance, is going to produce a much different type of flavor than a beer brewed with Rye. The most common grain used, however, is Barley due to both availability and functionality.
When creating a grain bill for a recipe, you start with Base Malts. These are pretty well exactly how they sound- a mixture of (usually) different varieties of malt that offer food for the yeast. That is their main priority and they do it well. Sometimes, they offer slight hints of flavors such as honey or bread but, otherwise, tend to keep to their assigned task. The more base malts used, the more “food” for the yeast, and the higher the alcohol content.
Once these have been determined, other varieties of malt are added. These tend to lend more to flavor and aroma than base malts. These varieties can be categorized into Pale/Light Malts, Caramel, and Roasted/Dark Malts. The categories are named for their levels of “malted” product. The Pale is only lightly roasted while the Dark is deeply roasted and the sugars in Caramel Malts have been caramelized. These create a spectrum of colors and flavors ranging from very light to very dark and very sweet to very toasted, respectively.
Other materials, such a corn, oats, or rice, may be used as well. These are referred to as “adjuncts” and are used primarily to adjust body and head of a beer.
The Drink-Along: Boulevard’s Unfiltered Wheat
As the name suggests, this is a wheat beer. This typically means that this style was brewed with primarily wheat grain. Using wheat instead of barley does impact the finished product. Wheat tends to have higher protein yields which, in turn, makes a longer-lasting, foamier head as well as impacts its mouthfeel (the way the body of the beer feels when you take a drink.) Using wheat also tends to give the beer a slight haze, which adds to the stability of the beer. Many brewers filter this out due to consumer appeal, although some are starting to leave it natural. Usually, a hazy beer is completely suitable to drink and, in this case, will add to the experience and understanding of the beer. This style is malty all the way through, from the sweet aroma to the bread-like flavor.
And if we change the grain bill up just a bit…
The Drink Along: Lazy Magnolia’s Southern Pecan
Southern Pecan is a Brown Ale, which is one of the original styles that brought me to the love of craft beer. In general, a Brown Ale has a much deeper flavor, especially when compared to a Wheat. The grain bill can include a multitude of different malts and has a lot of wiggle room. In general, though, some Amber malts are used, which gives a similar color to its name and some mild roastiness to the flavor. Chocolate malt is also used in varying quantities and, yes, it does provide a chocolate-like taste, although it won’t pass for liquid Godiva without some help. Other dark and roasted malts are added which, as you can imagine, give a roasted or toasted flavor and aroma. Some malts added may even give a Brown Ale a slight nuttiness- especially in this case, where whole pecans are added in and used just like grain.
As I’ve mentioned so many times before, the myriad of possibilities with beer is just about endless. Malt is one of the many examples of how a brewer can quickly turn into a mad scientist. It is quite enjoyable to see how changing just one element of the big picture can alter the end product so drastically- and even more enjoyable to taste it!
So here’s to the one bill no one minds paying.