In a beer world of ever more esoteric added flavours, it’s easy to forget the key role played by the most important ingredient of all: malted barley. Pete Brown looks at the bedrock of brewing
Ask a typical beer drinker what beer is made from, and the chances are they’ll reply, ‘hops’. Hops define beer. They’re the drivers of the craft-beer revolution, as people learn their favourite varieties in the same way we learned the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon 20 years ago. Which is weird, because beer isn’t ‘made from’ hops at all. In fact, hops are arguably the one ingredient beer can be brewed without.
Some flavour compounds in beer come from the hops, but a lot come from the malt itself
Imagine you’re cooking, and you have a pan of tender chunks of chicken bubbling away in a rich tomato sauce with a base of garlic and onion. If you add cumin, coriander and garam masala to the pan, it’s a chicken curry. If instead you add oregano, basil and marjoram, it’s a Mediterranean-style chicken stew. The herbs and spices might define the dish, but the dish mainly consists of chicken and tomatoes.
In beer, hops are the herbs and spices, the flavourings, accents and aromas. The chicken and tomato – the body of it – is malted barley. At the heart of any alcoholic drink, there has to be a source of fermentable sugar, which is transformed into alcohol by yeast. Strictly speaking, if this sugar source is fruit, you’re making wine, and if it’s grain, you’re brewing beer. This also means that cider is apple wine, and saké – often billed as ‘rice wine’ – is, in fact, rice beer, in case you were wondering.
Against the grain
Fruit and grain behave in quite different ways when it comes to giving up their sugar to other creatures. Most fruit almost begs to be eaten, because seeds are either spat or excreted out some distance away from the parent bush or tree. Grain, on the other hand, can be spread as far as it needs to by the wind, so its hoard of sugar is protected and reserved for the plant embryo carried inside. This gives rise to one of the great mysteries in the history of brewing. Crush or squeeze fruit and pretty soon natural yeasts will get to work turning sugar into alcohol.
Five key malts
The backbone of every beer in some form, the workhorse of brewing, with light biscuity notes
Red-hued and used in small amounts. Crystal adds sweetness and depth to beers such as classic British amber ales
Kilned at a higher temperature than most malts, this one adds –you guessed it – chocolate and coffee aromas and flavours, mainly in porters and stouts
A speciality dark malt that adds a specifically espresso-like bouquet
During drying, Bavarian rauch malt is smoked – usually over beechwood – giving it a dirty blonde appearance and strong smoky aromas
But to get a grain such as barley to release its natural sugars is far more complicated. It requires a process called malting, which takes several days and various stages. Barley sugar is stored as starch – long-chain molecules that yeast can’t digest. In turn, the starch is surrounded by a rockhard shell. When the grain senses that it’s in warm, wet ground, it releases enzymes that break down the starch into digestible sugars and soften the shell so the embryo can germinate and start growing roots and shoots.
The malting process entails wetting the grain to increase moisture content, warming it to cause the enzymes to activate, then heating it in a kiln to kill off the seed embryo so it doesn’t go through with the germination. Scientists only discovered what enzymes are and what they do in 1833. And yet brewers have been manipulating them via the process of malting for around 10,000 years. For most of history, brewers knew the process worked, but had no idea why.
So malted barley is the source of beer’s fermentable sugar, which means it’s ultimately the source of its alcohol. Taste wort – the warm beverage created by steeping barley in hot water to get those enzymes to convert the starch to sugar – and it’s like drinking very sweet tea with a digestive biscuit dissolved into it.
Once fermentation has happened, a lot of that sweetness disappears. But there’s still a lot of flavour left. Some comes from the hops that are added in the next stage of brewing, but a lot of the flavour compounds come from the malt itself. When malt is dried, it’s cooked.
The length of time and the degree of heat in this process defines the flavour of the finished malt. Lightly toasted pale malts are biscuity in character. Turn the heat up a little, and you get darker malts such as crystal, which are a little chewier, with sweeter flavours like you get from granola bars. Go the whole way and toast the malt until it’s dark, and it will give flavours of chocolate and coffee.
Once you’ve seen and tasted a range of malts, it’s sensible to assume that lagers and pale ales are made using pale malts, amber bitters from darker malts and porters and stouts from the darkest malts. Sensible, but wrong… When malt is cooked past a certain point, the sugars caramelise and the enzymes are killed, so while the grain might taste great, it’s useless as a source of fermentable sugar. This means that even the darkest beers consist of around 90% pale malt, with the remaining 10% is a cocktail of different flavour malts, depending on the style of the beer and the taste profile the brewer is looking for.
Five beers that champion malt
Fuller's Golden Pride
This classic barley wine-style beer is rich and sweet, the alcohol warmth balanced exceptionally well by the Golden Promise pale malt, conjuring up fruit and deep grain flavours with a complexity closer to wine than most beers
8.5%, POA, Fuller’s, 020 8996 2000
Govinda ‘Chevallier’ Edition Heritage IPA
Using recently restored Chevallier heritage barley as the base malt, the brewer feels the malt is ‘much more aromatic, full bodied and full flavoured’ than modern pale malts, providing a body that stands up well to generous hops
6.8%, £35.40x12/50cl, The Cheshire Brewhouse, 01260 274788
The assertive suggestion of smoked bacon or Bavarian smoked cheese is not the most obvious flavour you’d expect to find in beer, but it’s the first association you’ll make here. Not for everyone, but quite compelling
5.1%, £1.97/50cl, Beer Merchants, 01622 710339
Tiny Rebel Cwtch Welsh Red Ale
Brewed with the legendary Maris Otter barley, the Champion Beer of Britain 2015 uses a blend of six different malts for a welcoming caramel hug of a beer with great depth and length of flavour
4.6%, POA, Tiny Rebel, 01633 547378
Five Points Railway Porter
A delicious blend of Maris Otter pale, brown, crystal, chocolate, Munich, dark crystal, and black malts exudes aromas of chocolate and coffee, with caramel and dark fruit hints mingling with demerara sugar and dark spirits
4.8%, £2.45/33cl, Five Points Brewing Co, 020 8533 7746
Knowing how long to kiln malt for to get a specific flavour profile, and getting that profile consistently takes an enormous measure of skill. Weyermann in Bavaria is the world’s most famous supplier of speciality flavour malts, having patented varieties such as dark, coffee-ish Carafa and low bitterness Sinamar. The Weyermann team can often be seen at trade shows and beer festivals around the world displaying its malt aroma wheel, which is divided into roasted, smoked, fruity/nutty, malty and caramel aromas, before being subdivided into specific aromatics such as almond, honey and clove.
Given the maltster’s ability to get all these different flavours out of one grain simply by changing the time and heat at which that grain is dried, the contribution of the barley the maltster starts with is often overlooked. For years, the general consensus was that the variety of barley being malted made no difference. Barley was bred to be consistent, to stand up to pests and to have a good yield. But one variety that should have been superseded by newer breeds stubbornly refused to quit. Brewers – particularly of pale ale – swear by Maris Otter, launched in 1965.
Barley varieties are generally eclipsed by newer ones within five years (mainly because that’s when the royalty due to the barley breeder expires), but in 2015 Maris Otter celebrated its 50th birthday in style, with a beer festival featuring beers from around the world all brewed with this legendary barley. Brewers refer to Maris Otter as a malt in its own right, rather than a barley variety (it’s usually used as pale malt).
In 2016, a beer brewed with Maris Otter was named Champion Beer of Britain for the 11th time in 16 years – this is in spite Maris Otter only having a 5% share of the British barley market. This devotion led Robin Appel, owner of Warminster Maltings and part-owner of Maris Otter, to experiment. He made eight different porridges with unmalted barley of different varieties, and a panel tasted them blind. Maris Otter was the clear winner in terms of taste.
Maltsters and barley growers put this difference down to terroir – if soil, climate and rainfall affect the flavours of different grapes in wine, then why wouldn’t it have the same effect on barley? Many would argue the best malting barley terroir in the world is found in East Anglia, where the soil is just right and the cooling sea mists allow the grains to ripen for longer through the summer, becoming plumper and more flavourful. This is where the mother field for Maris Otter lies, the grain prevented from cross-pollinating with anything else, and the harvest going not to beer, but to plant other Maris Otter fields across the country.
If you visit a craft brewery in California, Australia, Japan or South Africa, you’ll probably see bags of speciality malt from Weyermann and sacks of Maris Otter pale malt from Norfolk. This complex interplay between the nature of the grain and the extraordinary process it goes through before it’s ready for brewing means malting can often be misunderstood.
It’s certainly under-appreciated. Most beer drinkers compare hops to grapes in wine, citing their favourite varieties and seeking them out. After hops, novelty-seeking beer drinkers and brewers moved onto the complicated world of wild yeasts and other microorganisms instead. Now sour beers have had their moment, interest has moved on to adjuncts – other flavour ingredients that can be added to beer such as fruit, pastry ingredients or even glitter.
Fine – beer’s strength is the combination of its four main ingredients and its accessibility to other, more esoteric additions. But if you’re looking for the full range of flavour and character that beer can offer, and you’re not exploring the difference between the delicate crispness of pale, the big fat bang of chocolate and the arresting weirdness of smoked malt, you’re missing out on beer’s soul.