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A Brief Introduction to Brewing Malts, the Backbone of Beer

Malts provide the backbone of a beer. They are, in the form of malted barley, one of the three ingredients named in the German Beer Purity Law (the Reinheitsgebot) and they lay the foundation for a beer’s color, flavor, and mouthfeel. These grains are like unsung heroes, creating a platform for the hops, yeast, and additives to interact.

Whether you’re a home brewer looking to expand your style or a brew fan thirsty for more beer knowledge, take time to know your malts. Here’s a rundown of the most popular malts used in brewing, and how each malt impacts the finished beer.

brewing malts malted barley
Malted barley, the most common type of malt used in beer. Sergi Escribano/Getty Images

“Malt,” for the purposes of this introduction, is simply a grain that has been prepped for the brewing process (we’ll get to the grains involved soon). The grain’s starches are transformed by soaking, germination, and heating, converting those starches into sugars that are primed and ready for fermentation.

Most beer recipes start with a combination of fairly generic malts, like two-row or six-row malt (named for the way kernels grow on the stalk). Then recipes may call for additional malt combinations, enhancing the beer’s complexity by adding caramelized, roasted, or specialized malts.

brewing malts malted barley types
Malts come in a variety of profiles for different flavors. Image used with permission by copyright holder

The most common grain used in brewing is barley. The wide variety of barley malts can be divided into different characteristics based on the shape of the stalk, the region in which it was grown, or its specific variety. Those malts can also be roasted to various degrees, resulting in darker colors and thicker consistencies in the beer. This is where we get chocolate malts from; it isn’t the use of chocolate, rather the length of roasting and the end flavors.

Lightly roasted barley malts will be used for pale ales, pilsners, and golden ales. Malts with a deeper roast create the base for ambers and Märzens. An even darker roast is used for brown ales and dunkels. Take the roasting process to the maximum and you’ll produce the grains needed for stouts, porters and the like.

While barley is the most common malt in the world of brewing, it’s not the only grain in town. Non-barley malts include wheat, rye, millet, and oats. While not as versatile or varied as the barley family, these grains impart their own unique qualities to their respective brews. For example, wheat adds sweetness, rye adds spice and oats boost a beer’s body.

Large industrial breweries often rely on adjunct grains (or unmalted starches) to fill in their recipes. These can include corn and rice. Homebrewers and some craft breweries also delve into expanding grain bills by including pumpkin, potatoes, and other vegetables and cereal grains.

To learn more about brewing malts, check out the book Homebrew Beyond the Basics by Mike Karnowski or visit your local home brewing store.

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Lee Heidel
Lee Heidel is the managing editor of Brew/Drink/Run, a website and podcast that promotes brewing your own beer, consuming the…
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