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Barley & Me


Malted grain or more commonly, malt, is one of four ingredients (water, malt, hops, yeast) used in the production of every beer ever produced. I have said that water is arguably the most important ingredient in beer production because of the nuanced flavors it provides. However, malt is the backbone and it bestows the foundational beer flavor that water and its adjunct ingredients build upon. Without malt, beer just wouldn’t be beer. In fact, the infamous “beer purity law”, the Reinheitsgebot, implemented in 16th century Bavaria cites malt as one of the only three ingredients allowed for use in the production of beer. They famously failed to include yeast as the fourth ingredient (without which fermentation cannot occur) because at the time it was not known that yeast and bacteria were the catalyst that allowed fermentation to occur. But more about yeast in a future blog post.

Field of barley. Image credit: Hannes Flo via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

But why was malt important enough to make specific laws about in the first place? At the time, cereal grains were a limited resource and the urge to make creative new beers is something that has driven the world of beer since its inception. Every beer style utilizes different types of malt; however, experimenting with different grains and malting styles used up valuable resources. The Reinheitsgebot then limited malt to only being made from barley. The idea was simple; limit competition between brewers and bakers. Brewers were able to use the majority of barley produced for delicious beer and bakers used the majority of wheat and rye produced.

The enforcement of the Reinheitsgebot was effective and as a result many regional beer styles died out, lost to the annals of history. This beer purity law was widely adopted throughout much of Europe and as a result very few beer styles survived this ordeal, among the survivors are the Kölsch, Gose, and Altbier styles. During this period, brewers used nearly identical malts with the only source of variation coming from the malting process.

Eventually, cereal grains became less limited and the Reinheitsgebot was loosened and has since been amended several times. It still exists in modern day Germany as the “Vorläufiges Biergesetz” (Provisional Beer Law) of 1993, although now it distinguishes between fermentation styles including allowing for different types of yeast to be used as well as a wide range of grains and hops. When the law was relaxed there was an explosion of beer styles utilizing wheat, rye, and many other cereal grains. This freedom gave rise to the resurgence of wheat based beer styles such as HefeweizenBerliner Weisse, and Witbier. Additionally further experimentation with the malting process led to the inception of many specialty malts.

The malting process, often called malting, can be broken down into three basic steps: steeping, germination, and drying. The steeping process allows the grain to absorb water and begin the germination process. As water is absorbed, a cascade of enzymatic reactions ensues, breaking down unfermentable proteins, carbohydrates, and starch into fermentable sugars and complex carbohydrates. The grain is transferred to a germination chamber as the first sprout and roots emerge from the grain. Master maltsters closely monitor the grains as they are churned and humid air is pumped through the chamber. Once enough of the grains have germinated, the entire batch is heated and dried for two to four hours. This halts the germination process before the sugars and complex carbohydrates can be used by the grain to drive new growth. From here on out the grain is referred to as malt.

Malt. Image credit: tadekk via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The method used during the drying process imparts specific and often unique flavors to the malt. These methods vary from simple changes to the drying temperature; to roasting the malt for varying amounts of time; to smoking the malt with wood or peat logs. These highly variable malting techniques are part of what has allowed brewers to develop such a broad range of flavors in modern beer.

Specialty malts provide a multitude of flavors that arguably make beer, beer. There are hundreds of different types of malt, some are widely used in nearly every style of beer (2-row barley) while others are rarely used except in specific styles of beer (peat-smoked malt, Special B malt, Red-X malt). Bready, toasty, toffee, caramel, honey, chocolatey, coffee, malty are just a handful of flavors created by malt. The next time you crack open that Athena Berliner Weisse from Creature Comforts, Noctua barrel aged imperial stout from Akademia, Hopsecutioner IPA from Terrapin, the uber local Wild Azalea Saison from Southern Brewing Company, or any beer for that matter; remember that if it weren’t for malt, the libation in your hand would not be what it is.

In my next blog we’ll pour one out for the final ingredient allowed in brewing by the Reinheitsgebot, hops!

About the Author


Mason McNair is studying speciation, hybridization, and evolution of pitcher plants in the Leebens-Mack lab. He enjoys teaching, most nerdy thing (videogames, anime, board games), and brewing beer and cider.

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