Exploring beer’s malt foundations

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Beer a complex beverage

Chris McDonald, Shawn Meek Atlantic Beer Blog

Beer is an extremely complex beverage, but can usually be broken down into four simple building blocks: malt, hops, yeast and water. Variations in all four of these ingredients can drastically affect the aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and overall enjoyment of the final product. Each requires a fundamental understanding of their individual characteristics by the brewer, and how they gel with the others, so that the beer brewed reaches its full potential.

Malt is a broad term that generally refers to grains that have been malted, a process that allows the grain to partially germinate. Now that the grain’s starches are available, the malting process is stopped. When used in brewing beer, most grains are mashed; this is the process of soaking the grains in hot water, converting the starches from the grain into sugars — some fermentable, some not. The temperature chosen by the brewer for mashing will determine the fermentability of the resultant sugars. Fermentable sugars are converted into alcohol by yeast, while the non-fermentables will remain in the beer, aiding in the aroma, taste, and mouthfeel of the beer.

While the number of light-coloured base malts (which usually make up the majority of a grain bill) are relatively low in number, there are many different “specialty” malts available to build on the flavour profile of a beer recipe. These are created by “kilning” the base malts, a heating process that converts the starches to sugars inside the hull of the grain. The longer the grains are heated, the darker they become, and the more roasted their character. For example, a light-brown specialty malt such as CaraMunich may exhibit notes of toffee and caramel-sweetness, while Black Patent, which has been charred to a jet-black colour, lends plenty of roasted, coffee-like qualities when used in beer, even in small quantities.

Malted grains aren’t always the only ingredients in the grist of a recipe, however. Unmalted grains such as wheat, rye, oats and corn are often used in varying amounts, along with many types of refined sugars (ranging from table sugar to honey to Belgian Candi syrup). This group of ingredients are known as “adjuncts,” and many of them have their right place in particular beer styles.

When developing a recipe for a beer, the brewer has to build the malt portion — the “grist” — on how he or she wants the final product to look, smell, taste, and feel. If it’s a light-coloured Blonde Ale, such as Propeller’s Organic Ale, a grist that contains only Pale and Pilsen base malts will give an easy-drinking, crisp beer with just a touch of malt sweetness. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Propeller’s Revolution Russian Imperial Stout is a big, dark beer, which ultimately has a more complex grist. Pale malt is used as the base, with a significant portion of specialty malts backing it up, including Crystal (aka Caramel), Chocolate, and Roasted Barley. The resultant beer is jet-black in colour, with lots of roasted character and dark fruit in both the aroma and taste, along with a full mouthfeel from some non-fermentable sugars. More malt in the recipe means more sugar, which ultimately results in a higher alcohol level; Revolution’s heavier grist leads to it weighing in at eight per cent ABV.

Malt is the backbone of our favourite beverage; whether it be a sweet and fruity Scottish Export or a super-hoppy Imperial IPA, all aspects of the beer tie in with the grist. Aside from simply adding to the flavour and aroma, it affects the perception of bitterness, the fullness of the mouthfeel, and even changes the pH of the water during the brewing process. While none of the four major ingredients in beer is more important than the other, malt is the perfect example of a team player.

Occasions Recommends
Propeller Revolution Russian Imperial Stout, 500 ml $4.85
Propeller Organic Ale, 6 x 341 ml $13.99

Next Week
We hop on over to Boxing Rock to talk hops with brewers Emily Tipton and Henry Pedro.

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