In what seems like forever now (apologies for the long absence) we took a look at what role hops played in the brewing process. This time around we're going to take a good look at what malt brings to the concoction that is beer.
The majority of malt used in brewing is a malted barley. The short form of how it's created is that the barley is wetted and allowed to germinate before being dried. The drying process used, and varying degrees of heat will help to create malt ranging from light, grainy malt, to deeply roasted bitter malts. While barley isn't the only malted grain used in brewing (malted wheat and rye are also used in some brews), it is the most prominent one.
Malt is the backbone of beer, it contributes to flavor, color, and the body of the beer. The base malt, that is the malt that makes up the bulk of the malt used in your beer, is going to help you get the bulk of your fermentables. Most base malts are lighter in color as the more deeply you roast your grain the more you burn off the starches (these are what get converted to sugars during the brewing process). There are, however, several processes used in the malting of these lighter malts, not to mention where the grain was grown, that give different characteristics to every type of base malt. This is the malt upon which the beer is being built, so like every other ingredient a lot goes into selecting the particular malt as it will also be the malt nearly all your beers will be built upon.
The specialty malts are the ones which are used to fine tune your beers. A beer with a single malt can be good, but it will be rather one dimensional. Specialty malts will add character to your beer. Many of the lighter speciality malts will give nice toasty or biscuity characteristics to the beer. There are also malts known as caramel (sometimes also referred to as crystal) malts which range from fairly light, to darker red in color. They are created by a special stewing process that creates a sugar inside the hull of the grain. The darker caramel ones are then dried at great temperatures which creates the stronger caramel flavors that this type of grain is named for. Some of them can contribute flavors ranging from raisin like to plum like flavors. Most of the sugars they give off are fairly unfermentable so they can give a slight sweetness to the beer. They also will give the beer red colors that can range from just a slight tint, to a dark ruby hue depending on how dark and how much of the malt is used. The darkest malts are the roasted ones. These malts, even in fairly small amounts can contribute very dark colors to the beer. They also give flavors that range from chocolate like flavoring, to a strong coffee character, and some of the heaviest roasted malts give a very astringent bitter taste. These ones are used sparingly as you want them to primarily contribute to the color of your beer.
There are many different malters who have their own techniques, special roasts, and all sorts of tricks up their sleeves for bringing some unique characteristic to the beer. It's easy to become greatly overwhelmed by the varieties and can take a lot of research and experimentation to find just the right combination to obtain the flavor and color profiles that you are looking for in your beer. For me, however, the best part of brewing is how the processs of using the malt fills the brewery with those sweet grain aromas. It's one of my favorite smells in the world.
Next time we'll take a look at yeast and what it brings to the brewing process.