Jun 25, 2018

Beer Break

Beer Break Vol. 1, No. 40
Malt: The soul of beer

June 7, 2001

Brewers call malt "the soul of beer" but they might also add that malt contributes mightily to the different personalities we expect from beer. It's a big subject, so this week we'll discuss barley malt only and stick to the paler varieties.

Of all the barley grown, only one-quarter or less is used for malting. The rest is used to feed animals. Barley is well-suited for malting because it has the right components for yeast nutrition, it tastes good (homebrewers already know this -- if you aren't one, then ask to try some malt next time you visit a brewpub or tour a microbrewery), and it has a solid husk (protecting it at harvest, then later aiding the brewing process).


Barley is first of all divided by how many rows of grain there are in each ear -- either six or two.

Two-row is plumper and responsible for a softer, sweeter flavor. It is regarded as higher quality and long has been the standard in the traditional brewing nations (all of Europe and Great Britain).

Six-row barley is found more often in the United States and hotter Mediterranean lands. Europeans brewers are not alone in calling it less refined, and a beer made only with six-row is more likely to taste grainy and will probably show chill-haze because of excess proteins. In moderation, it lends a firmness and husky character to beer, which some ale brewers prefer.

Six-row is less efficient (yielding less extract from a mash) but because of higher levels of diastic enzymes and protein it is better suited for mashing adjuncts, such as corn or rice, that lack those materials. Thus it was (and is) a perfect barley malt for the style (light lager, with adjuncts) beer that came to dominate the U.S. beer landscape in the 20th century.

Within two-row there are the continental and maritime varieties. The continental barleys, such as those grown in the Czech Republic, are generally sweeter, nuttier and maybe oilier. The maritime barleys of Denmark and the United Kingdom are a bit cleaner and more delicate.

Then there are winter barleys and spring barleys, sown in the fall and later winter respectively. Winter barleys tend to be huskier, spring varieties softer and sweeter.

We'll spare you the details of the different manners in which barley may be malted, and just tell you that is another important variable. Sound confusing enough?

Over much of time, brewers have used the barley grown closest to home, often even malting it themselves. It's fairly recently, and mostly in the United States, that a brewer could order malt from halfway around the world so he or she could make a true-to-style Czech pilsner (with Moravian malt) or a Belgian dubbel (with two-row Belgian pale malt made from winter barley).

A quick summary of these pale options:

- Pilsner malt (2-row) from Europe. This is the palest two-row malt available, and is used in pilsners and other lagers.

- Lager malt (2-row) from the United States. Used in lagers of all colors, as wells as ales and steam beers.

- Lager malt (6-row) from North America. Excellent to use with a high percentage of adjuncts, but generally considered inferior in taste to 2-row.

- Pale ale malt (2-row) from Europe. This malt is what British-style ales are all about (70-90% of a stout is actually pale malt; more next week). The top British and Belgian pale malts are generally considered the best you can buy, and their flavors at quite similar, imparting a maltiness without being sulfury.

- Read about darker barley malts.

Tasting notes

Brewed by Live Oak Brewing Co., in Austin, Texas

Michael Jackson writes:

One of my favorite pilsners, and one that I have known since its earliest days. It poured with a big, creamy head, leaving a very good lace. There were lovely, appetizing aromas of both malt and hops, one after the other. The same one-two in the palate; first a rich, smooth maltiness; then a firm, long, leafy bitterness. I am wholly convinced that the under-modified malt and decoction mash both make an important contribution to the character of this beer.

Brewed by Three Floyds Brewing Co., Hammond, Ind.

Roger Protz writes:

This amazing stunning ale is permeated, underscored and positively booming with mangoes, from the aroma through the palate to the finish. Along the way the amber colored ale picks up some tart hops on the tongue, while the long, dry, iron-like finish has bitter hops alongside the fruit, both of which are cut by a delicious hint of malty sweetness. Complex, aromatic, and quenching, this is a helluva beer.

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