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  • Writer's pictureEvan Fougere

Beginners Guide to the Backbone of Beer

Updated: Jan 26, 2020

Malted Barley is the single most important ingredient to beer. It determines the colour and alcohol of the beer, and contributes to aroma, flavour, mouthfeel and the head/head retention. Barley is the best grain for brewing due to everything it innately has in every kernel.

Barley has lots of starches that can easily be converted into sugars the yeast can ferment. Also in barley is more than enough enzymes to break down the starches into fermentable sugars! Each kernel has a husk that creates a filter bed during the mashing step of the brewing process. Without this natural filtration material the mash would become a gluey mess. To complete barley as a one-stop-shop, barley also has dextrin and proteins that add body, mouthfeel and in protein's case, colloids that create head.

So what is Malt then? When you hear brewers talking about malt they are mostly talking about malted barley unless they specify another grain. Malted barley is barley that goes through the malting process.

The malting process takes barley that was harvested, dried and stored and puts it through a few different steps to get it ready for brewing.

Germination is started by soaking the kernels until they reach nearly half water by weight (around 46% generally speaking.) This is when enzymes become activated in the kernel and start breaking down starches, big carbohydrates and proteins.

The soaked malt is now laid out for a few days and the Maltsters keep it turning over and also feed it oxygen through “air rests.” When the acrospire, a sprout at the end of the seed, grows to a specific length, the Maltster decides the enzymes have broken down enough of the more complex carbohydrates for brewers to convert into sugars later on. They then dry it to halt this process and begin kilning.

This “green” malt is then kilned, stewed or roasted to whatever colour level the maltster desires halting the germination process as well as adding colour and flavour via the Maillard process.

These malts can be kilned lightly to colours like straw, gold, light amber or all the way to dark brown and black! These colours are measured by the Standard Reference Method (SRM) or Degrees Lovibond (°L) these use the same numbers, ranging from 1.5 SRM to 40+ SRM. See the SRM Chart above to see which colours sit where.

  • Lighter coloured malts like Pilsner malt have characteristics of uncooked flour and bread dough.

  • Golden coloured malts like Pale malt have common descriptors of white bread or water cracker.

  • Light Amber malts like Vienna malt are known for their toasty, caramel and pie crust flavours.

  • Brown coloured malts like Chocolate malt are known for their nutty, toffee, chocolate or dark fruit flavours.

  • Black malts like Black Patent are commonly described as roasty, burnt, coffee-like.

I hope this post helps you guys understand the malting process a bit better and just how important barley is to beer! It is truly the backbone to all beer contributing to every single aspect of the finished product. This post is the precursor to a fun interview I recently did with Shoreline Malting‘s John Webster out soon!

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