If you’re a beer enthusiast, have you ever considered home brewing? Our home brewing expert, Jared Kovacs, shares all the information you need to know to start producing your own great beer. This month he talks about why grain is important to brewing beer and demystifies malt, an essential ingredient of beer.

Home Brewing Essentials: Understanding Malt | Food Bloggers of Canada

Grain is the backbone of beer. Always has been and always will be. You may remember me mentioning that in the Home Brewing Essentials: Grains and Equipment post. Grains are so important that it’s worth doing a whole post on them. You wouldn’t try to make risotto without first knowing something about the ingredients needed to make that particular dish; it’s the same with beer. As they say, knowledge is power, and in this case having knowledge about grains and malt will translate into having a better tasting beer.

Barley and Brewing

Home Brewing Essentials: Understanding Malt

There are a variety of grains beer can be made from. If it’s a cereal crop, you can bet someone at some point in history has tried to ferment it. Wheat, oats, spelt, corn, rice and others have all had their shot and are still being used to make quality brews today. They’re known as adjunct grain. But there’s been one grain, in particular, that’s been used most frequently to brew beer, and that’s barley. Civilization was able to grow and develop because our ancestors discovered agriculture. We literally wouldn’t be here today if our ancestors hadn’t discovered cereal grains and their calorie-packed potential. The first two grains that were planted and harvested were wheat and barley. You could say civilization was built on the back of beer, and you wouldn’t be too far from the truth. So yeah, barley is an essential grain, not just for our beer, but for human history.

Like all grain, barley is a seed. This seed contains all that’s required for the plant to reproduce and grow again. It includes proteins, sugar, enzymes, bran, and more. Each part of the seed plays a role in this process. The task of the brewer is to unlock this potential power and use it in such a way to make a delicious beverage.

The Malting Process

Home Brewing Essentials: Understanding Malt

Problems arise in barley’s raw and unprocessed form. It’s virtually useless. The outer shell is too hard and tough to make beer because we can’t extract the sugar and enzymes needed to ferment it. Even if we milled it, we’d have a hard time making beer out of it simply because the seed is dormant. It’s like when you first wake up in the morning. You’re slow, groggy and maybe a little disorientated, especially without having a cup of coffee first. For barley to make great beer, it has to be malted first. We need to give it time to wake up and have a coffee, so to speak, before its full potential can be realized. Just. Like. Me.

So what’s the malting process? The malting process allows the seed to begin to grow under controlled conditions. Remember when you planted bean seeds in a clear cup with wet paper towel in elementary school so you could see the miracle of life? It’s exactly like that except that malters (the people who produce malted barley) don’t allow the plant to be neglected, growing out of control until it meets its ultimate forgotten, shriveled-up demise. You and I are responsible for those bean plants deaths. They never had a fighting chance.

Once the seed reaches the desired modification, malters begin the kilning process. Kilning is the process of drying the malted barley using hot air circulating through it. This removes moisture to stop any further development of the seed as well as adding colour, flavour and aroma. From there things get interesting. Malters will continue to kiln dry to produce different base/specialty malts as well as roast others to produce even more specialty malts. Because of these processes, there are many flavour profiles that can be reached in your final brew.

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Base Malts and Specialty Malts

Home Brewing Essentials: Understanding Malt

So let's talk about the difference between base malts and speciality malts. Base malts are the real heroes of beer. During the mashing process, we extract all the sugar and enzymes needed for fermentation. Without base malt, we wouldn’t have alcohol or carbonation because there wouldn’t be any sugars for the yeast to consume. Base malts include 2-row, 6-row, pilsner, Vienna, Munich, and pale ale malt.

Specialty malts add flavour, mouth feel, aroma, and colour to our beer. They add complexity to our brews but don't add a whole lot of fermentable sugars because their sugars have gone through a process called caramelization. This makes it difficult for yeast to consume. The flavour profiles of these grains range from caramel, a variety of dried fruits, and burnt sugar, to toasty, chocolatey, and coffee flavours. Specialty malts include caramel/crystal 20-30-40-60-80-150, roasted barley, and chocolate malt but there are a lot more.

Becoming a Better Brewer

Home Brewing Essentials: Understanding Malt

As you can see, having a solid working knowledge of grains and malts only helps you become a better brewer. Each base malt offers unique flavours, which are used for particular styles of beer. Specialty malts add complexity to our brews and are also used for certain styles of beer. I’ve tried in the photos to give you a good visual of what I mean.

One of the great things about homebrewing is that we aren’t bound by rules. Sure, if you want to make a traditional Kolsch you’re limiting yourself to certain malts. But if you want to get creative, you can mix and match and see if you come up with something incredible.

Finally, I’ve only covered a small fraction of what there is to know about grains and malted barley. I haven’t even touched on wheat beers or the use of adjunct grains. There’s so much more to discover! Remember this hobby is truly like the ocean: shallow enough to wade, but deep enough to keep you exploring for a lifetime. If you’d like to know more about grains I’d recommend Randy Mosher’s book, Mastering Homebrew and John Palmer’s, How to Brew. These books have been invaluable to me as I’ve developed as a brewer and I find myself referencing them still.

Brew on, friends!

Have you brewed your own beer? If so, share your favourite malts or blend of malts to use in the comments.


Home Brewing is written by Jared Kovacs. Jared comes from a long line of food and drink connoisseurs. His father was a chef, his grandparents owned a diner, his grandfather is a home brewer, and his great-great-great-grandfather was a brewmaster in Germany. He loves sharing good food, beer (especially home brews), and cider with friends and family. You can follow him at The Hesitant Chef or on social media at Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

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