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According to a recent report by the Brewers Association (BA), U.S. craft breweries now consume nearly 40% of the total malt consumed by U.S. brewers, even though craft breweries only represent 12.7% of the market. And both of those percentages are expected to continue to grow.

Illustration by Aubrey Laurence

Hops may get most of the attention these days, but malt is beginning to get some well-deserved time in the limelight. Notably, the BA has begun to do some exciting work on the importance of malt in craft brewing, specifically malting barley characteristics that are better suited for the craft brewing process. Malting Barley Characteristics describes the future needs of craft brewers as it relates to malt.

With more than 6,300 breweries currently operating in America, breweries must differentiate themselves in an increasingly crowded marketplace by producing unique, innovative, and high-quality beers. Within this effort, brewers are now seeking barley malts customized to their needs with distinctive flavors and aromas, lower free amino nitrogen (FAN), lower diastatic power (DP), lower total protein and a lower ratio of soluble protein to total protein (S/T).

Aptly dubbed the “soul of beer,” malted barley provides the necessary starches, proteins, and sugars to produce beer, and it also provides color, body, and flavor in finished beer.

For thousands of years we’ve understood how crucial malt is to brewing, but for far too long we’ve treated it as a homogenous, commodity product.

That said, it’s come a long way in the last few decades. Will Kemper, owner/brewmaster at Chuckanut Brewery, understands this as well as anyone. “The biggest difference now, compared to the 1980s, is that there are significantly more [malt] options,” he says. “Large malting companies now have broader selections, and specialty/craft malting companies actually exist.”

Will Kemper, Owner Chuckanut Brewing

Old-school homebrewers also notice the improvements in quality and variety. Just 20 years ago, most homebrew shops only offered a handful of malts, but walk into the North Corner Brewing Supply today and you’ll find roughly three dozen different malts from which to choose.

NEW MALT FLAVORS

Malt flavors in beer are usually associated with malt styles (i.e., base malts, caramel malts, specialty malts, roasted malts, etc.), rather than individual barley varieties or their growing environments (i.e., terroir). New research, however, suggests otherwise.

In the article, “Malt: Effects of barley variety and terroir on beer flavor,” in the March/April 2018 issue of Zymurgy magazine, researchers found multiple lines of evidence that indicate significant differences in beer flavor due to barley variety. They also found evidence that growing location and environmental factors – such as climate, soil type, irrigation, nutrients, pest control, and other management practices – can contribute to beer flavor.

Additionally, in a late-2016 article, “Evolution of Barley, Malt, and Beer Flavor,” Chris Swersey, supply chain specialist for the BA, wrote how the barley malting industry is evolving and how modern research is increasing our understanding of flavor attributes in malt:

Dr. Pat Hayes and Dustin Herb, researchers at Oregon State University, have explored the sensory impacts of variety, terroir, and malthouse process on malts and the beers made with them; as it turns out, all of these factors are significant. They have also identified multiple locations of the barley genome that control flavor outcomes in malt and beer. Dr. Adam Heuberger at Colorado State University is exploring the molecular basis of barley and malt flavor, and flavor outcomes in beer.

As exciting as all this research is, it should be noted that the flavor differences between barley varieties, growing regions, and farming practices are modest compared to the effects of malting, not to mention mashing, brewing and fermenting. This is why choosing the right malt – and malting company – is so important.

Of course, let’s not forget that the brewer is also a critical component in all of this. “The best malt will not create good beer if the brewer is not capable,” Kemper says. “Likewise, bad malt will not create good beer, even with a good brewer.”

Beyond barley variety and brewing processes, how barley is malted determines flavors. From base malts to specialty malts, and from the palest pilsner malt to the darkest black malt, there are countless options for brewers. To add, different moisture contents can even create different results. Kilning or roasting drier produces more toasty and biscuity flavors, whereas kilning or roasting wetter produces more toffee and melanoidin flavors.

LOWER FAN

Free amino nitrogen (FAN) is a degradation product of protein in malted barley. Several factors affect FAN content in wort (including mashing and boiling), but FAN levels are primarily determined during malting, so it is important for brewers to use appropriate malts.

FAN is crucial for yeast growth and health, but too much of it can create flavor issues and stability problems. Adjunct brewers need high-FAN malts to make up for adjuncts, which do not provide FAN or DP, but all-malt brewers do not require as much.

Insufficient FAN can cause a slower and longer fermentation, which may result in an underattenuated beer or a beer with off-flavors, such as diacetyl. Lower residual FAN levels in finished beer, however, can actually contribute positively to product stability.

Excessive FAN causes yeast to grow and perform at a faster rate, which may lead to the formation of higher alcohols (fusel alcohols) and off-flavors such as isoamyl acetate (banana ester) and isobutanol (solvent/paint thinner). High FAN can also lower pH.

According to the BA, some brewers have indicated that today’s suite of relatively high FAN malts actually make it more difficult for them to manage geographic growth of their all-malt craft brands, mainly due to shelf instability issues.

LOWER DP

Enzymes are specialized proteins that act as catalysts in chemical reactions, such as diastase, which converts starches in malted barley to sugars. These sugars are then consumed by yeast, which produces alcohol, carbon dioxide, and, in some cases, flavors and esters.

Diastatic Power (DP) is a measurement of a malt’s enzymatic strength, or its ability to convert starches to sugars in the mash. It is sometimes expressed in degrees Lintner, often denoted with °L (not to be confused with degrees Lovibond, which is a measurement of color), where American 2-row pale malt has 140 °L, caramel/crystal malts and black malts have 0 °L, and various specialty and continental malts fall somewhere in between.

A malt needs a diastatic power of approximately 35 °L to be considered “self-converting,” which means it has all the enzymes it needs to adequately convert starches to sugars in the mash. (Though, at such a low level, it may take longer than normal mashes with higher-DP malts.)

Much of the barley grown and malted in the U.S. contains high DP and is best suited for the production of adjunct lager beers, which are produced with high proportions of adjunct grains (e.g., rice and corn) in the mash. In contrast, craft beers, which are often all-malt or mostly all-malt, do not require such high levels of DP.

High-DP grists can cause mashes to convert too quickly or convert with just small variations in temperature, pH, or consistency, resulting in overattenuated worts. This can lead to variations in the final product, as well as lower body and mouthfeel.

Some craft brewers say that lower DP provides them with more control and it gives them more flavors. Too little DP, however, can result in an underattenuated beer.

LOWER TOTAL PROTEIN and LOWER S/T

Malt with high protein content provides lots of enzymes for the mash plus good head retention and body in the finished beer. High-protein malt is usually undesirable, though, because it can produce inconsistent results, it causes more beer haze, and it has less shelf stability (due to it having more residual nutrients for spoilage microorganisms).

On the other hand, lower protein levels (along with lower FAN, S/T, and DP) are said to give brewers more control while providing increased extract. But if proteins are too low, some brewers report difficulty in developing malt color.

“Protein is mystifying,” Kemper says. “It has both positive and negative influence. Keep in mind that protein is the overall description of a chemical content that contains a myriad of smaller and created components that come about through the deconstruction of protein. It is these latter materials that we are ultimately concerned with in brewing.”

CRAFT MALTING

Most malted barley made for brewing still comes from a handful of mega producers, but there’s a rapidly growing number of smaller craft maltsters entering the market. According to the Craft Maltsters Guild, there are roughly 50 craft malting companies in North America, and many more are in planning.

Skagit Valley Malting (SVM) in Burlington is often described as a craft maltster, but it’s more like a custom / precision maltster. Unlike most malting companies (whether big or small) that produce a preset line of malts from which a brewer can choose, SVM can customize malt specifications – as well as the barley variety – for individual breweries.

While most of Chuckanut’s beers are based upon the world-renowned Weyermann malt, Kemper is a fan and a staunch supporter of SVM. “One of the main reasons we set up Chuckanut (aka South Nut) in Skagit was due to Skagit Valley Malting,” he says. “We are literally neighbors, and we will continue to use their fine products.”

SVM’s state-of-the-art facility features several rotary-drum machines that were designed, engineered, and built by SVM. They feature wireless technology and precision control systems, a novel airflow design, and an adjustable, rotating bed that provides heightened uniformity in the malt by exposing each kernel to the same environment during all five phases of malting – washing, steeping, germinating, kilning, and polishing. This results in unprecedented consistency and uniformity in both color and modification development throughout each batch, and from one batch to the next.

Skagit Valley Malting’s combination of tech and unique growing region produces malt that surpasses standard premium two-row in all of the above metrics. The following data was populated from third party COAs (certificate of analysis) of Skagit Valley Malting varieties, including their Copeland Pale, Copeland Pilsner, Talisman Pale, Talisman Pilsner, Pilot Pale, Pilot Pilsner, NZ-151 Pale varieties and compared, in aggregate, to a COA from Country Malt Premium Two-Row.

“As the craft beer scene continues to diversify and appeal to a larger audience, more attention is being given to the ingredients used in brewing, especially as it relates to flavor development,” says Will De Remer, SVM maltster & process engineer. “Malt is getting more attention because craft brewers are becoming more sophisticated and diverse in the beers they create. This, coupled with the growing number of craft maltsters in the U.S. and the increased attention given to barley development, has given brewers the ability to explore brewing with new ingredients that better represent their regions and styles of beer.”

New research and technology, new malting companies, new grain varieties, and new flavors are providing craft brewers with more options and better controls than ever before. And that’s a win for everyone.

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Aubrey Laurence
Aubrey has been a craft beer fanatic since the mid '90s and he has written about beer for a wide variety of publications in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado for well over a decade. He has judged beer in multiple competitions, plus he has rated and taken notes on thousands of beers from all 50 states and 68 countries -- visiting 16 of those countries on 6 continents. He is also a Certified Beer Server with the Cicerone Certification Program, an avid homebrewer, and a hop grower. In 2013 & 2014, he spearheaded Bellingham Beer Week. When he’s not drinking beer, he’s probably climbing a mountain somewhere. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and three cats. Follow him on twitter @AubreyLaurence.

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