Hey, I see you there, backing away from that conversation about malt because one person started talking about amylase activity in mash.
Get back in there slugger! I got you covered with this overview of what malt is, how it’s made, and why it’s important.
This primer will cover the basics (yes, I left quite a bit out) for those who want to write (or speak) with a little more confidence. If you’re looking for a deep dive into delicious piles of malt, check out John Mallet’s book from Brewer’s Publications. I heard the guy who edited it is pretty cool.
Malt as a beer ingredient
While consumers may name hops as the most recognizable ingredient in beer (water is always so sadly overlooked), malt does a ton of selfless work in the brewhouse. Loose kernels of malted grain are cracked in a mill then added to the mashtun, where they steep at a specific temperature to encourage enzyme activity, ultimately creating the sweet primordial soup from which all beerish life will eventually emerge: wort.
A beer’s recipe will normally include a combination of base malts and specialty malts.
Base malts are generally pale with high diastatic power (also known as degrees Litner), meaning in layman’s terms that they have the potential to produce more sugar, more easily. They provide the food for the yeast (often called fermentables), and a beer made entirely of a single base malt would be a shade of yellow or gold with a singular complexity.
Specialty malts are added at various points during the mash (depending on the recipe), and contribute to the color, aroma, and flavor profile of the beer. Contrasting the base malts, they tend to contain very few fermentable sugars, and are used primarily for their other gustatory and olfactory qualities.
The length of the sugars extracted by the enzymes in mash dictate much of how the yeast will ferment the beer, too. It may not be as sexy as those sticky pods of lupulin, but malt is incredibly important to brewing (and enjoying) beer.
Malt as a verb
Although “malt” in the brewing industry often manifests as a noun (“what kind of malt did the brewer use in this beer?), the verb form – “to malt” – is more important to understanding the ingredient.
Cereal grains grow tall, and when they are mature, produce seeds. These seeds are like any other; out in the wild, they’d fall to the ground, get covered in dirt and moisture, and begin to grow when the next season came rolling in on Spring sun.
But taken out of the natural cycle, cereal grains cannot make beer until they are malted, or more specifically, soaked, germinated, and dried. Maltsters (the people who make malt, shockingly enough) harness the seed’s biological imperative, and trick it into growing. They place the seeds into a bed of water and let them begin to grow roots and breathe. The goal is to allow the seed to change – or modify – sufficiently that it will break down its own internal sugars and release them into the hot waters of the mash to make wort.
When the seed is fully modified (or close to) they halt the growing and modification process by blowing hot air through the grain. After the tiny roots are removed (a process call deculming), the malt is kilned, both to prevent spoilage and create desired flavors through Maillard reactions. All of a beer’s color is derived from its malt; the darker the roast, the darker the beer, from the delicate daffodil of lager (pale bale malt) to the midnight dark of stout (roasted barley).
It’s imperative the grain be malted well before it reaches the brewery; without the malting process the seeds would be dry, rock hard, and lacking the necessary sugars to provide a feast for the yeast. Apparently some attempts at non-malt beer have been tried by the Japanese, but 99% of the time, when we’re talking beer as history and culture knows it, we’re talking malted grains.
Malt as a noun
“Malt” as a standalone makes for a poor noun. It’s far too abstract, as many different grains like rye, wheat, sorghum, oat, rice, and corn can be malted.
While yes, malted barley makes up the vast majority of all malt used in beer making, it’s important to quantify which type of malt you’re referring to, which is why you’ll often see references to “malt barley” in beer writing. Malted barley itself can be expanded out into a huge list of varieties and levels of roast, and many beer recipes use multiple types of malted barley to achieve certain flavors and colors (two-row, six-row, Munich, Carapils, Crystal, patent black, etc). Other beers mix types of malted grains – a rye IPA for example might use both malted barley and malted rye.
“Grain” is equally lacking as a noun. Industry jargon discusses the grain bill of a beer (or the list of malts that went into the mashtun) but the word itself refers to unmalted seeds. Grain exists in the fields; it’s an agricultural term. “Grist” – as in grist bill – reads similar; it implies ground grain (like that used to make bread flour), but makes no reference to whether or not it has been malted. Neither are fundamentally incorrect and both are used widely, but it’s always good to remember exactly what each means.
Malt as an adjective/adverb
In Chapter 2 of his book, Mallet says that he thinks Munich malt is the closet match to quintessential “malt flavor” and I tend to agree. It compares best to malt as it appears outside of beer: malted milkshakes and malted chocolate balls. But other varieties of barley malt taste very different; dark roasted specialty malts, like Special B for example, can have notes of raisins and dates, while some other pale base malts taste like Pillsbury dinner rolls or KFC biscuits. All that to say that while there is a basic malt flavor, varieties of malts can taste very, very different from each other.
“Malt” works perfectly as a traditional adjective: malted barley. Use it with impunity.
It doesn’t work at all as a blanket adverb: “malty.”
“Malty” is lazy. And boring. And uninspired.
It’s equivalent to boiling The Alchemist’s Heady Topper or Ballast Point’s Sculpin down to “hoppy.” A single adjective doesn’t do justice to the complexity and variety our tongue and noses are capable of experiencing. Saying a beer is “malty” is like saying that your steak tastes like meat or your wine tastes like grapes; of course it does, it’s quite literally made of that thing. Every single beer in the world (barring maybe that weird aforementioned Japanese stuff) will in some capacity taste malty.
Use bready or biscuity instead. Or toasted or roasted or burnt. Hundreds of other, more specific adjectives can describe what you’re tasting, so don’t cop out and go with “malty.” Your future readers thank you.
I understand a lot of people use “malty” as a way to grade the level of noticeable malt flavor when compared to others beers and styles, but it’s still an unimaginative smear of language being used in the place of proper, descriptive prose. If something tastes more malty than something else, say exactly that, but then follow it up with concrete examples of what you’re actually tasting.
Malt is both simple and complex, both obviously present and hiding in the background. Take the time to get to know how malt works in your favorite beers, and you’ll discover a new appreciation for the naturalistic side of beer, and how amazing it is that maltsters have basically bridled and domesticated the Kreb’s cycle. It may not be glamorous, but it’s still beautiful in its own, agronomic way, and deserves to be treated with respect lest it, and your writing about it, be infested with weevils.
TL;DR – to use the term “malt” or “malted” is to imply that a grain underwent a specific process that has been used to make beer for centuries. It’s a verb first, a noun second, an adjective third, and an adverb never.