Brew Perfect Beer: How To Select The Best Malts for Homebrewing

Malted Barley

It can be very difficult to decide what malts to use, especially when you first switch to all-grain brewing. How do you determine what maltster to use? What base malt should you use? Which specialty malts are best, and how many should you use? If you have any of these questions, you are in the right place.

Malted Barley

First and foremost, let’s talk about the grain we use. Malted barley is the most commonly used cereal grain in beer brewing. Malted barley contains starches, which are gelatinized and converted into sugars during the mashing step of the brewing process. There are two types of barley that brewers use: two-row and six-row. We discuss these in greater detail below.

We use malted barley over other cereal grains, such as oats, rye, rice, and wheat, because, unlike these cereal grains, malted barley retains its husk during the threshing process. Threshing is the act of separating the grain from the straw. The husk is essential to providing stability to your mash bed. Without the husk, the mash would compact together and the wort would not be able to flow through it.

You can, and most likely will, use the other cereal grains, but they generally play a minor role compared to the malted barley. Brewers add small amounts of wheat malt to enhance mouthfeel and add to the body of the beer. Oats add a silky, smooth mouthfeel, particularly to NEIPAs and oatmeal stouts. The most common exception to malted barley not being the star of the show is wheat beers. For these styles, we use rice hulls to provide mash stability.

Two-Row vs Six Row

The structural difference between two-row and six-row is how the kernels develop on the barley’s head. As described, two-row grain produces two kernels and six-row grain produces six kernels. Two-row grains develop more evenly and are more widely used worldwide for brewing. Six-row kernels tend to be smaller and more variable in size. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, which are discussed below.

Two-Row Barley

Two-row barley has a lower enzyme content, less protein, more starch, and a thinner husk than six-row barley. The higher starch levels promote greater efficiency, allowing more beer to be produced from less barley. The thinner husk leads to lower polyphenol levels and creates a mellower beer. The thinner husk can, however, cause your mash bed to be more unstable during the mashing and sparging processes. As mentioned above, we can add rice hulls to enhance stability.

Six-Row Barley

Six-row barley has a higher enzyme content, more protein, less starch, and a thicker husk. Even though the efficiency is less due to the lower starch levels, the higher enzyme content is ideal for converting additional starches that do not have enzymes of their own. The thicker husk can lead to higher polyphenol levels, which can contribute to haze and can impart a slightly astringent taste.

Malting

Barley by itself is not ideal for brewing. It must first go through the “malting” process. Malting has three main steps. The first step is soaking the barley – also known as steeping – to awaken the dormant grain. Next, the maltsters allow the grain to germinate and sprout. Once the grain has germinated to the desired degree, the maltsters cut it off to prevent the grain from using up all the starches. The final step is kilning, where the barley is heated in a kiln to produce its final color and flavor.

The temperature of the kiln determines the color of the malt and the number of enzymes left over for the mash. Lower kilning temperatures create a low-colored, low-flavored malt that is high in enzymatic power. Malts kilned at a mild temperature have fewer enzymes, but more color and flavor. Malts kilned at high temperatures have hardly any enzymes but are very high in color and flavor. For the purposes of this article, we will leave malting here, but we will discuss this process further in later posts.

Choosing Your Malts

When deciding on your grain bill, you have both base malts and specialty malts. All styles use base malts, but not all styles use specialty malts. Base malts add the majority of the starches and enzymes you need. Specialty malts add a wide range of colors and flavors to your beer, but, due to the higher kilning temperatures for the specialty malts, they have significantly fewer enzymes. We explain the difference between the two below.

Base Malt

Pilsner malt, which is a base malt variety of malted barley.
Pilsner Malt

The base malt makes up the majority of your recipe. As mentioned earlier, some beer styles can be 100% base malt. Maltsters kiln base malts at low temperatures, which allows them to retain their enzymatic strength and provide you with plenty of starches to convert into fermentable sugars. You can see this in the image to the left. This particular malt is a German Pilsner malt and has a very light SRM of 2. Each maltster has a unique technique for making these malts, so we recommend looking at the maltster’s description when choosing your base.

The main base malts you can choose from are pale malt, Maris Otter, pilsner malt, Munich malt, and Vienna malt. Of the five, pilsner and pale malt are the most common. We have these malts listed out below, along with flavor descriptors that will allow you to choose the best option for your recipe.

Pale Malt

  • Pale malt is commonly referred to as 2-row. It is extremely versatile and adds a nice malty flavor.

Maris Otter

  • Maris Otter is a type of pale malt that is common in English beer styles and produces a rich malty flavor.

Pilsner Malt

  • Pilsner malt is slightly lighter than pale malt and produces a lighter, crisper beer. It is commonly used in lagers.

Munich Malt

  • Maltsters kiln Munich malt at the highest temperature of all the base malts. This produces a deeply rich, malty flavor. It is commonly used in darker German lagers like bocks and dunkels.

Vienna Malt

  • Vienna malt has a sweet, grainy, malty flavor. It is commonly used in Vienna lagers.

Many brewers mix and match base malts to get the flavor profile they desire. For example, we often cut Munich malt with pilsner malt to scale back on the malty sweetness. Also, consider using malts that are traditionally used for that beer style. For example, for English styles, use a Maris Otter malt to produce the rich, malty flavor that is expected.

Specialty Malts

Caramel/Crystal 60L malt, a specialty variety of malted barley.
Caramel/Crystal 60L

Specialty malts are where the fun begins. They can add all kinds of flavors and colors to the wort. The flavors they add are intense, so we use them in significantly smaller amounts than we use base malts. The main types of specialty malts you can choose from are caramel malts and roasted malts. We discuss both of these in greater detail below. Again, each maltster uses different temperatures and techniques, so you’ll want to look at their product description sheet to see what flavors they impart.

Caramel Malts

Caramel malts undergo a specialized malting process that causes them to produce unfermentable sugars. These sugars add body and sweetness to the beer. The caramel malts add increasingly strong flavors as they get darker. Light caramel malts add a mild sweetness and bready flavors, while dark caramel malts add burnt caramel and raisin-like flavors. We show you what you can expect to see from increasingly darker caramel malts below.

Light Caramel Malts (30-50 SRM)

  • Use between 5% and 15% of the grain bill
  • Adds a mild sweetness with mild caramel, toffee, and bread flavors

Medium Caramel Malts (70-90 SRM)

  • Use between 5% and 15% of the grain bill
  • Adds pronounced caramel and toffee sweetness

Dark Caramel Malts (110-130 SRM)

  • Use between 3% and 15% of the grain bill
  • Adds burnt caramel, toffee, and raisin flavors

Roasted Malts

Roasted malts are kilned at the highest temperatures and impart intense flavors. These malts are used in low amounts, usually between 1% and 10% of the grain bill depending on the style. Their flavor profile includes notes of coffee, chocolate, and roastiness. The most common are below.

Pale Chocolate Malt (270-340 SRM)

  • Use up to 10% of the grain bill
  • Adds light roasty, coffee flavors

Chocolate Malt (540-660 SRM)

  • Use up to 10% of the grain bill
  • Adds a chocolate flavor with slight hints of coffee

Black Malt (711-965 SRM)

  • Use up to 10% of the grain bill
  • This malt has a surprisingly neutral flavor and is generally used as a color adjuster

Roasted Barley (660-960 SRM)

  • Use up to 5% of the grain bill
  • Adds an intense coffee flavor

Other Cereal Grains

Wheat malt, one of the cereal grains similar to malted barley.
Wheat Malt

Last, but certainly not least, are the other cereal grains. As mentioned above, the other cereal grains are wheat, unmalted wheat, and oats. We use these grains extensively, but they rarely, if ever, make up the majority of a grain bill.

Wheat Malt

Wheat malt has many different purposes. Brewers use wheat malt in small amounts (5%) to increase foam stability. It is also the base malt of wheat beer styles, where it makes up between 50% and 70% of the base. When using this much wheat, make sure you use rice hulls. Wheat malt does not have the husk that malted barley has, so too much wheat malt without rice hulls will lead to a stuck mash.

Unmalted Wheat

Unmalted wheat adds cloudiness to the beer, along with a strong grainy flavor. The protein content is high, so you may need to have a protein rest to get everything out of this grain.

Flaked Oats

Flaked oats add a silky, creamy mouthfeel to the beer. We use flaked oats in our NEIPA recipes and oatmeal stouts. Only use up to 20% of the grain bill. More than this will cause problems for your mash.

Putting It All Together

When you are putting your grain bill together, start with your base malt, and then chose your specialty malts. For the base malt, use the flavor descriptors we mentioned above and choose a maltster that is from the same nationality as the beer style you are brewing. When determining the percentage of specialty malts to add, look at the maltster’s website. They often list what flavors are added based on the percentage used. For example, Briess includes the following on their website for their Honey Malt:

  • 1% – 5% – To add honey and sweet bread flavors in light beers
  • 5% – 10% – Contributes complex honey, graham cracker, and malty flavors in ales and dark beers
  • 10% – 20% – Delivers prominent warming bakery-like flavors such as biscuit, honey, and brown sugar

If the maltster does not list out percentages like this, then they usually list the maximum recommended amount. Use this to add exactly what you want to your beer. Try to stay below 3 to 4 specialty malts, especially if you are new to all-grain brewing. Using too many malts can cause the flavors to muddle together.

Closing

And with that, you have everything you need to start developing all-grain recipes! Homebrewing is all about experimentation, so it will take you a couple of iterations to get the exact flavor profile you are looking for. For more references, feel free to look at our Beer Recipes page. Here, we have a large number of recipes that have in-depth descriptions of the malts we use and how we chose them. And as always, if you have any questions, please feel free to send us an email at brady@thebeerjunkies.com and we will answer you as soon as we can. Cheers!

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