grains – /grāns/ – noun
Aside from water, the most abundant ingredient in the most delicious beverage on earth is malted grains. Particularly malted barley. Yes, you can create a beer without malted barley (and most gluten free beers do so, using sorghum primarily) but odds are if you’re not ordering gluten free, malted grains are all up in your pint glass. The fun part about these grains is that you can use a lot of different grains in a single batch of beer, creating complex and diverse colors, flavors, aromas and even mouthfeel. So grab a cold one and fill your glass because it’s learning time.
Per the usual, my typical disclaimer about the fact that this is a general overview of the topic mentioned above and not an in-depth science lesson applies.
The Malting Process
There are plenty of grains that are used to make beer but the most common is barley (2- row barley and 6-row barley to get specific) so let’s focus on that. The malting process for grains has a lot of science behind it but the 10,000 foot view is this:
- Grains are made warm and moist to start their germination process
- Enzymes work to produce more enzymes and expose starches that the plant would use for food
- The kernels start to sprout (this small stem is called an “acrospire”)
- Once the acrospire is about the same length as the kernel itself, the grains are heated and dried to stop further growth locking in those starches and enzymes
Now you have a kernel packed with enzymes and starches. The kernels are then heated to specific temperatures (by a kiln) with specific moisture control to create specific colors (measured in SRM) and flavors among other things. During the brewing process the enzymes convert the starches into sugars, then those sugars get eaten by yeast which then produces alcohol. These enzyme and starch packed kernels are a very good thing for beer.
How this impacts your beer’s ingredient list
The lighter the roast, the lighter the color of beer it makes and with darker malts…..you get the idea. However, the lighter malts have a lot more “diastatic power” than the darker malts. Diastatic power is a measure of the malt’s ability to break down starches into sugars during the brewing process. The darker a malt gets, the less diastatic power it has. Therefore, using all dark malts to make a dark beer would result in a LOT of grain use to get enough sugars for the yeast to eat. More simply put: To create a dark beer, like a stout, brewers actually use 80-85% light malts and the rest will be the darker “specialty” malts.
How this impacts your beer’s taste
When you heat things up and they turn brown, the flavor profile changes. This is evident in toasted bread, grilled hamburgers, roasted marshmallows and everything else you cook with a flame. Since the malts you use in brewing were heated up and changed color, their flavor profile changed, too. Light malts can be described as bread and bread dough. As the malt colors darken, those flavors become more pie crust, bread crust and caramel. When those colors get to their darkest, they’re described as roasted, chocolate and coffee. We can lump aromas into these descriptions, too.
How this impact’s your beer’s…..other stuff
Aside from color, aroma, and flavor, malts also contribute in ways you may not even notice or expect. Does that beer of yours have good head retention? It’s probably because the brewer used a malt high in proteins and dextrines which contribute to that sexy, white, frothy cap. Does that beer feel nice on your tongue? Thankfully your brewer knew to add some crystal malts (sweet malts with a caramel color) or something similar which helped to add body to your beer.
Other Grains That Aren’t Malted
We did a whole article on adjuncts (read it here) but the bottom line is that other grains that are not malted are used in beer as well. You can add rice, corn, wheat (malted or unmalted) and oats, among others. These grains do not have anywhere near the diastatic power as their malted counterparts so they’re used sparingly and primarily for flavor and body, not so much for color or to help add sugars.
Holy cow, this was much harder to summarize than I expected but that’s the 5 minute read on malted grains that I lovingly packaged together. In the next 60 seconds, you can close this browser window as a slightly smarter human. You know what malted grains are, how they’re made, how they taste and what they add to your beer. I’m sure you’ll take umbrage with some of the things I omitted but I did my best, and in today’s “participation trophy” culture, I’m told that’s all that matters. Yay me.
Do you have a beer term that you’d like to know more about? Email me at email@example.com or comment below with something you’d like to see explained in a future Vocabrewlary Lesson.