Joe Sixpack: Malt is the heart of your beer

Posted: September 20, 2012

IT'S HARVEST SEASON, and that brings thoughts of those amber waves of grain, of lively maidens dancing upon freshly sheaved bales, of strong-shouldered lads hoisting them onto horse-drawn carts while singing "Oklahoma!"

In your dreams.

The barley in your beer was likely genetically modified, sown by a robot and harvested by a computer-operated combine the size of a locomotive. It was air-dried and stored in a temperature-controlled silo for up to two years, swapped at the Chicago Board of Trade, analyzed in a laboratory, converted into malt, sold to a wholesaler and shipped to a brewery where another computer decided how much to add to the kettle.

Of course, no one would drink a beer with illustrations of commodities futures traders on the label, so dancing maidens it is. Don't get me wrong - I love the mythology of malt. After all, it's the fall harvest that was the very foundation of the world's greatest beer celebration, Oktoberfest.

Indeed, I get protective of malt, as beer drinkers are increasingly enamored by hops-oriented ales. They sometimes forget it's malt that provides the bulk of a beer's color, flavor and body. Other than water, malt is the No. 1 ingredient in your favorite beer.

So this harvest season, with help from folks at Briess Malt & Ingredients and Valley Malt, I'm sharing this malt primer for hopheads.

MALT is made from grain: wheat, rye, oats, rice or even amaranth, quinoa and spelt. The preferred variety, though, is barley, for two big reasons: its superb starch content, which is easily converted to fermentable sugar; and its hard husk, which is retained throughout the malting process and serves as a filter bed when the sweet liquid known as wort is drained from the lauter tun.

MALT liquor does not contain more malt than other varieties. The additional alcohol and sweetness is from corn sugar.

MALT-making is a marvel of biology that man has practiced for 5,000 years. Grain is steeped in water to initiate germination, a process in which the seed's enzymes break down its proteins and carbohydrates and open its starch reserves. When the seed begins to sprout a tiny green tail or "chit," germination is halted by drying the grain.

MALT originally was dried either in the sun or over fire. The latter method infuses the malt with a smoky aroma and flavor - a style known as rauchbier that is still made today, most notably in Bamberg, Germany.

MALT gets its color from the kiln-drying process. The longer and hotter it's heated, the darker its color, ranging from pale yellow to black. Malt's darkest variety is called black patent, named for the British patent that was issued in 1817 to the inventor of a new drum roaster that created darker malts.

MALT types are combined by brewers, allowing them to design a beer's complexity, that combination of sweetness and roastiness that interacts with hop bitterness.

MALT amounts vary depending on the type of beer. An average brew requires about 25 pounds per barrel (or about 1 ounce per bottle). Rock Art says its Vermonster barley wine is made with 110 pounds of malt per barrel.

MALT is ground up and steeped in hot water (about 150 degrees) for an hour or more, a process known as mashing. During this period, the grain's starches are converted into sugar, which is ultimately fermented into alcohol.

MALT is often recycled after brewing and fed to cattle.

MALT is classified into two broad types - base malt and speciality malt - with several popular varieties each.

Base malt is lightly kilned and produces the bulk of fermentable sugars in beer. Varieties include:

* Pale: most widely used malt, light color. Taste it: Samuel Adams Boston Lager.

* Pilsner: sweet, delicate, lightest color available. Taste it: Flying Fish Exit 4.

* Vienna: pronounced malty flavor, amber color. Taste it: Avery The Kaiser.

* Munich: smooth, sweet and intensely malty, reddish amber. Taste it: Great Lakes Eliot Ness.

Specialty malt is used in small amounts primarily for distinct flavor and color. Varieties include:

* Crystal or Caramel: contains unfermentable dextrin that adds body and sweet, toffeelike flavor. Taste it: Sierra Nevada Torpedo.

* Chocolate: rich, roasted coffee-like, brown. Taste it: Yards Love Stout.

* Black patent: sharp and acrid, black as ink. Taste it: Left Hand Fade to Black.


"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. Contact him at joesixpack@phillynews.com. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly e-mail update at joesixpack.net.

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