When it comes to craft beer, the real buzzword may always be hops (not yeast, malt, and certainly not water). Hops get all the airtime. Many beer lovers can name several varieties without giving a thought to malted barley. But when I think about the nuances of the brewing process, malt is of much more interest to me.
Whereas hop oils are volatile and unpredictable, malt is trusty. Hops finish the brewing process, but malts initiate it.
And this moment right now is a very exciting time for malt.
So what, exactly, is malt?
Anyone who has been on a brewery tour will tell you that malt is grain, most often barley. But the grains don’t go straight from the field to the brewhouse, they have to be malted in a process which is completely fascinating.
The goal of the malting process is to make the sugars in the grain more readily available to yeast. In its simplest form, malting involves tricking the grain into sprouting via moisture and oxygen. From there, the grain is heated to stop the sprouting process.
If you look closely at the grains above, you can see the tiny sprouts coming out of the tip of the grain, and the rootlets coming out of the bottom.
The grains typically steep in water for 24-48 hours, and the germination (sprouting) takes several more days. Oxygen must circulate around the grain, so the process typically takes place in large silo-like rooms on top of some sort of false bottom or screen. During this time, enzymes are breaking down complex carbohydrates into simple ones. These sugars would be beneficial to the growing plant, however, kilning is the final step in the process. Kilning stops the germination of the plant, which at this point is about as long as the grain or just longer.
After kilning, the majority of the grains are roasted further, some for a short time, others for much longer, creating richly roasted malts in brown and black hues.
Malting has been done for centuries, and the basic principle hasn’t changed a whole lot. But brewing has.
Brewers drive malting practices – their needs bring change to the malts available on the market. This was not obvious to me until I heard the podcast from Good Beer Hunting featuring Sara Hagerty of Malteurop. The staff at Malteurop don’t just educate they brewers to whom the deliver grain, they take the brewery feedback to the malt production team in a beautiful symbiotic relationship. Malsters help brewers to live up to their potential. Chances are, if target gravities or efficiency is off, the maltster can help.
Local readers should be pleased to know that Shakopee, Minnesota, is home to one of the largest malt producers in the nation. Rahr Malting (which has operations in North Dakota and Alberta, as well) has a total storage capacity of 8 million bushels of grain. They malt over a thousand samples per year for process improvement alone, and house a large brewery for the purpose of experimentation and practice.
The recent explosion of the craft segment of malting is only a natural consequence of the craft beer movement, not to mention the sweeping emphasis on local food. The fact the the Craft Malting Guild exists is proof that craft malting is more than just a fad. According to the guild, craft malt is malted grain, including barley, wheat, rye, millet, oats, corn, spelt, and triticale, that is “grown within the region” of the malthouse. Craft malthouses produce 5 to 10,000 metric tons of product per year.
Recently, I was able to sample malt from one of New England’s premier craft malthouses, Valley Malt, which produces about 4 tons of malt per week, and has nearly outgrown their current capacity. The co-owner of Valley Malt, Andrea Stanley, is also the President of the Board of the Craft Malting Guild.
Andrea brought samples of six of her raw ingredients to the Big Beers, Belgians, and Barleywines Festival in January. A few of the samples were so tasty I was snacking on them all morning.
One sample was a tart rye, called Kvass malt. It is made in the tradition of the ancient Slavic drink which allows rye to steep and ferment into a kombucha-like tart liquid. The grain undergoes much the same process – it steeps anaerobically for about four days, producing acetic acid. It can be used in place of acidulated malt, which is sprayed with an acidic solution.
Andrea also described their re-creation of a historic malt called snapped or blown malt, which had a brief reign in British porters and stouts. Snapped malt is roasted moist at high temperatures, rather than the moderate temperatures of most malts, and the steam inside the grain causes the husk to snap open. It was sold to brewers by volume, not weight, so the maltster could more easily profit, though the malt did not produce the same amount of roasted flavor.
Finally, Valley Malt is experimenting with single-variety malted barley and heirloom strains. They are resurrecting genetically diverse strains and developing their qualities and potential for brewing. Many of these varieties contain higher protein and husk in relationship to carbohydrates, making them less well-suited for brewing, however, they adapt well to their land and climate, and could be of potential use in some applications.
Expect increased interest in barley varieties this year, as the opinion is changing on whether the strain of base malt makes a flavor difference.
Spoiler alert: it does. I tasted three different ales, brewed using an identical recipe and process, each made with a different kind of two-row barley. The grains were Scarlett, from Colorado Brewing Company, Full Pint, from Oregon State University, and Hockett, from Montana State University. Even the most skeptical industry professionals were converted by this experiment, leading to a discussion about terrior in brewing.
And that’s not the last you’ll hear of that.