Man Beer School: Malt, The Rhythm Section of Beer

Man Beer School: Malt, The Rhythm Section of Beer

Man Beer School: Malt, The Rhythm Section of Beer: Let’s take a moment for an analogy. Beer is like music. You can drink your shitty Kid Rock beer (American Badass Beer, formerly brewed at Michigan Brewing Co.), or you can spend your days drinking Miles Davis (Bitches Brew, Dogfish Head), but rather than compare beer to specific artists, lets look at beer like a rock and roll band made up of several different elements. In the next several editions of Man Beer School I will dissect the elements of beer–malt, hops, yeast and water–and use this example the rock band as a vehicle to a better understand. It may be farfetched, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can compare anything you love to music.

Element 1: Malt

Without malted grain, there is no beer. For nearly every commercially available beer, the malted grain of choice is barley. You can throw hops, yeast and water together with any other type of fermentable sugar and you will get alcohol (likely some disgustingly bitter wine), but you will not get beer. Malted Barley is the backbone of beer. Say what you will about Paul and Ringo (especially Ringo), but there would be no Beatles without them. A brewer can choose to do a “single malt” beer with only one type of malted barley, or throw in every different kind available in some sort of attempt at avant garde expressionism. Neither approach is right and neither is wrong. Like any rhythm section in any band, it’s about interpretation and balance.

What Is Malted Barley?

Barley is a cereal grain in the grass family. To make beer, the grain must undergo the malting process–which is essentially soaking the grain until partially germinated and then drying it in a kiln. While in the kiln, a maltster (one who makes malted barley) can decide how light or dark to make the grain. This gives brewers a wide selection of tones and beats to lay the foundation of their finished beer. Choosing a malt bill is one of the many tough decisions a brewer must face when formulating a recipe. Our choice of malts includes pislner, pale, biscuit, victory, Munich, Vienna, Dextrin, crystal (of many different varieties from light to dark), Special B, chocolate, black patent and more. Then a brewer can choose to layer in different malted or unmalted grains like wheat, rye, sorghum, oats and more. To even further complicate the decision, a brewer can choose to toast, roast or smoke their malts to give different flavor and textural qualities to the finished product. The choices are overwhelming. Think about it like a drum set. A good drummer can certainly play a killer beat with just a bass drum and snare (or a plastic bucket and a trash can), but has the option to add cymbals, toms, cowbells, tambourines, and anything else that can be hit with a stick. Remember, it’s all about interpretation and balance.

How Is Malted Barley Used?

Barley is not fermentable by nature. The purpose of malting barley is to create enzymes that will eventually later be used by the brewer to convert the grain’s starch into a fermentable sugar. The brewer must “mash” these malted grains to activate these enzymes. The process is very much like steeping a tea. At this point, the chemistry can get pretty confusing, but let’s stick to basics (if you happen to have specific questions, feel free to ask). Essentially, a brewer needs to go from starch to sugar because yeast cannot ferment starch.

To conclude, I suggest you remember as you down your next brew (whether homebrewed or store-bought) to appreciate and respect malted barley. Just as without rhythm sections, we wouldn’t have rock n’ roll, without malted barley, we would have no beer. In this parallel universe, all we’d have is folk music and wine. Fuck that! Long live Malt!

– H. Vulgare

Man Beer School is a regular series on exploring everything you ever wanted to know about beer.