Homebrewers are often confused by the terms crystal and caramel malt and are sometimes uncertain as to whether these are basically the same thing and can be used interchangeably, or whether they are quite different animals. Partly this comes from the fact that crystal and caramel malts come in a range of different colors, and that individual products from one maltster may not be identical to those from another producer. They are in fact proprietary products and are often given proprietary names, which only serve to increase the confusion. That’s a pity because when they are properly used they are important cards in the discriminating brewer’s hand. In this story, we’ll talk about how they originated, and what they are, and see if we can’t clear up that confusion.
The first point in this discussion is the fact that these are roasted malts, and the roasting is carried out in a specific manner (there are exceptions as we’ll see later). Crystal malt came first and originated in England, at some time around 1880. The roasting process to produce black malt had been practiced since 1817, when a man by the name of Daniel Wheeler took out a patent on the procedure. Black malt was widely used to replace brown malt in porter brewing, but porter drinking declined during the 19th century as the public developed a taste for pale ales. At the same time original gravities (and therefore alcohol levels) were also falling in Britain, which led to brewers producing lighter, weaker, and less flavorful beers. This trend was further enhanced in 1880 when a new law was introduced which allowed brewers to substitute some base malt with sugar.
So, I presume that some bright maltster saw that there was (or would soon be) a need for a malt additive that could be added in small amounts to improve the body and flavor of pale beers, just as black malt served to give porters and stouts their characteristic flavors. So, since this maltster had already had a roaster, he or she experimented with different levels of roasting and came up with crystal malt. The new product met with approval from brewers and went from strength to strength through to the present as British beer original gravities continued to decrease throughout the 20th century. Crystal malt is now the predominant colored malt used in Britain and is used in most ales brewed there.
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