Written by Tom Becham for professorgoodales.net
In my long-ago first installment, I discussed the first ingredient of beer: water.
Now I wish to discuss grain.
Grain is what differentiates a beverage as beer. A fermented fruit beverage is a wine, a fermented honey beverage is mead, and fermented grain is beer. (So, technically, sake’ is not rice wine, but rice beer.)
Generally, the grain used in beer will be barley. To be most useful in beer, the barley must be malted. (And is often simply referred to by brewers as “malt”.) Malting, specifically, refers to the process whereby barley grains are soaked in water just to the point of germination. The barley is then dried with hot air, and any sprouts trimmed from it. The malted barley (or malt; remember?) is then roasted to a degree that will produce the effects on a beer that a brewer desires.
Why is any of that important? Because….
Barley must be malted in order to produce fermentable sugars (i.e., so the resulting beer can be fermented into something alcoholic by the later addition of yeast). The barley produces the alcohol, and is largely responsible for the color, body, sweetness, texture (“mouthfeel”) and major elements of the overall flavor of the beer. Thus is malt often called the “soul of beer”.
Grains other than barley can be used for beer. Oats, rye, and, most famously, wheat, are frequently substituted for a portion of the barley in many beer styles, and all will produce specific effects on the beer in terms of color, flavor, aroma and head (the foam at the top of your beer).
Corn and rice are also used, though usually only for very specific results, or if you are a very large scale brewer and also very cheap. (Yes, I have a prejudice against those grains, except very specifically using rice for an Asian-style lager. I think that generally, the inferior results of using corn and rice tend to justify my stance.)
Alternately, malt extract is used by many home brewers (and probably by more commercial brewers than I would care to know). Malt extract is the powder form of fermentable malt, and is the exact same stuff you find in the center of malted milk balls. For the most part, extract won’t produce much in the way of color, or much flavor aside from sweetness.
(Note: malt extract also comes in a very thick liquid.)
Once barley is malted, it is then roasted. The level of roast can determine both color and flavor almost entirely in beers. The lightest roasts will produce pale yellow beers with grainy, crisp flavors. A roast slightly darker than that will start to bring more sweetness to the table, and flavors get more rich and caramel-like as you go to brown roasts. In much darker roasts, you may experience flavors of baking chocolate and/or coffee, and the very darkest of roasts may taste like burnt toast.
Malt of varying levels of roast can be mixed, blended and combined to produce multiple layers of flavor. In fact, while hops get much of the glory in modern-day brewing as far as flavor is concerned, subtle and skilled use of malt is a much more difficult art. The very best brewers in the world can be known by their use of malt.
In my next column, I will discuss hops.
Tom Becham lives in California, he’s a homebrewer and reviews beer, brewpubs, breweries and beer events for professorgoodales.net.