Malt isn’t well known or flashy. It’s not talked about as often as hops. But it is one of the four basic ingredients in beer, along with water, hops and yeast. In fact, it’s the backbone of a brew’s flavour — think of it as the drums and bass to hops’ lead guitar.
There is no beer without malt, so suds lovers need to have a few grains of knowledge about it. Sit back and enjoy our guide to malt, the indispensable — if sometimes overlooked — heart and soul of beer and other malt-based bevvies.
What is malt and how is it made?
In simple terms, malt is grain that’s been steeped (a.k.a. soaked) in water, allowed to germinate and then heat-dried. This process converts the carbs inside the grain kernels into sugars that yeast gobbles up and turns into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Malt roast levels
The longer you heat grain, the darker it gets. It’s like toast: Pop a slice of bread in the toaster and you can grab it when it’s pale, golden or charred, depending on how long you expose it to the heat.
You can do the same with malt: Some types are gently roasted, with a lighter colour and flavour, while others are dark, with a deep caramelized taste. Some malt is dried in a kiln, and some is roasted in a drum, like coffee beans — often until it’s deep brown, with sharp flavours (again, like coffee).
Barley: the king of beer grains
So why is barley more commonly used for malting and brewing than other grains? Number 1: It’s easy to work with — it behaves the way brewers want it to every step of the way. Number 2: Fermented barley malt is delicious, giving beer the sweetish, bready flavour we love.
Is malt always made from barley?
Nope. Wheat malt is used to make wheat beer (obviously, though even wheat beer usually has some barley malt in it). Other grains find their way into brews, too. Malted oats (and even unmalted flaked oats) are sometimes used in stouts and porters to give them a smooth texture.
Every once in a while, you’ll encounter a beer made with malted rye, which adds complexity and bite to the brew — kind of like how rye flour adds an interesting, satisfying taste to bread. However, rye can be more of a hassle to work with, so breweries use it sparingly.
In their beer recipes, brewers give yeast other fermentable stuff to munch on — such as rice and various sugars, including corn sugar. These additions aren’t malted before they’re poured into the fermenting vessel, though.
How is malt used to brew beer?
There are many steps in the brewing process. The short version is that malt is the second ingredient, after water, that goes into the sweet, syrupy starter called “wort,” which yeast consumes and converts into delicious, bubbly beer.
The yeast doesn’t necessarily eat all the sugar, mind you: It leaves behind some fermentable stuff — called residual sugar — after the fermentation process is done. Beers with a lot of residual sugar will have a sweeter, fuller taste, while those with less will be drier and lighter-bodied.
Common types of malt and the beers they make
Malts differ in two basic ways: the variety of barley (or other grain) they’re made from and how long they’re roasted for. Brewers mix and match different malts to give different beer styles their characteristic flavours and colours.
From pale to dark, here are some of the most common malt varieties, and the beer styles you’ll typically find them in.
- Pilsner Malt: Three guesses for which brew this goes into. In addition to its namesake suds, Pilsner Malt has become the base for many (if not most) pale lagers, thanks to its muted blonde colour, delicate flavour and full mouth feel. It also helps generate a nice, foamy head in the glass.
- Pale Malt: Bready, sweet and substantial yet still clean-tasting, this English-style malt made from winter barley is the foundation of many pale ales.
- Golden Promise: Robust and full-tasting, this malt is pale but hefty enough to stand up to the heavy helping of hops in an IPA. True to its Scottish roots, Golden Promise is also used in Scotch ales.
- Maris Otter: Made from the only barley variety bred specifically for beer production, Maris Otter adds a bit of orange colour to beer. Its flavour is nutty, rich and biscuit-like. You’ll find it in everything from pale ales to IPAs to stouts.
- Munich and Vienna Malts: These are made from spring barley, and they have a sweet, bread-like flavour with a hint of honey and caramel. They’re used in ales, but more often in lagers, especially full-flavoured styles like Vienna (amber) lager and Bavarian-style lager.
- Pale Ale Malt: Darker, nuttier and fuller-tasting than Pale Malt, Pale Ale Malt is also used in pale ales, as well as amber ales and porters.
- Crystal and Caramel Malts: These have been “stewed” at high temperature to give them robustness and sweetness; they have nutty caramel flavours and nice brown colours. They’re used in British- and Belgian-style ales.
- Amber, Chocolate and Brown Malts: Each darker and sweeter than the last, these three produce deeply coloured, flavourful ales, especially British-style ones. Guess what kinds of flavours you typically get from a Chocolate Malt?
- Black Malt (a.k.a. Black Patent Malt): Here, barley is deliberately over-toasted to give it roasty, coffee-like aromas. Extended roasting removes all of the grain’s natural sugars, so this malt is only used to add deep-brown colour and rich aromas to beer (a lighter base malt provides fermentable sugar for the yeast). Black malt is an essential ingredient in stouts and porters.
How to pair malts with food
Easy! Search out foods with complementary flavours and pair them with beers that speak the same language. Deliciousness will ensue. Here are a few pairings to get you started.
- Pair a German- or Austrian-style lager — say, a full-bodied pilsner or a Vienna lager — with a fresh, soft pretzel or doughy pizza. The beer’s Munich and Vienna Malts give you a bread-like sweetness that meshes perfectly with each carbo-licious bite.
- Pair the caramel and nut flavours of Crystal Malt in British- or Belgian-style ales with sweet, nutty dishes, like our Nutty Amber Ale Caramel Corn.
- The caramel and brown sugar flavours that you get from Pale Ale, Crystal and Caramel Malts in American- and British-style ales pair oh-so-sweetly with the sugars in savoury dishes, such as our golden caramelized onions (so good on burgers).
- Pair actual chocolate with the cocoa flavours of a stout or porter (and say “thank you” to their Chocolate and Black malts for the perfect pairing). Our Chocolate Stout Crème Brûlée is a fine place to start.
- The molasses-like flavours of the very sweet British-style malts in stout pair beautifully with a Maple-Glazed Stout Gingerbread Bundt Cake.