Base malts make up about 80% of your recipe. But why so many different options and what makes each one special and unique?
What is Base Malt?
Malt is the soul of beer. While many beers use other grains like wheat, oats, rye, etc., malted barley is by and large the largest percentage of ingredients (besides water) in every beer. Yeast needs sugar to convert to alcohol and CO2, and that sugar comes from the starches found in malt. In this post, we will identify and explain what a Base Malt is, a little bit about the Malting process, and go over some of the Base Malts you can use in your next brew.
One important point when looking at malt: There are a number of different manufacturers, called maltsters. Weyermann, Rahr, Muntons, Briess, Avangard, Swaen, Canada Malting, etc are all names you might come across in your brewing adventures. You can think of these more like “brand names” of the same product. Two beers made with two different brands of the same malt will taste much more similar than different, and even highly sensitive pallets will have a hard time telling the difference. We would encourage you to not worry so much about the name on the sack of grain, but more to make sure you are getting the right type of malt for the beer you are making.
What the heck is Malt?Malted Barley comes in 2 major varieties: 2-row and 6-row. Did you know there was a difference? Barley kernels grow on the stalk in either rows of 2 or rows of 6 - hence the name! Most home and craft brewers use some kind of 2-row as their base malt in the vast majority of their beers. 6-row is usually used by certain corporate brewers for light lagers and in certain styles such as pre-prohibition beers. For the purposes of this post, we will leave the differences at that and really only refer to 2-row since that is likely what you will be brewing with. If you would like to dive deeper into the differences between 2-row and 6-row, the American Homebrewers Association has a great piece on it - click the link to read it.
After Barley is harvested, it goes through a process called Malting. This process starts the barley (seed) kernel growing which releases proteins, enzymes and starches inside the kernel. The process is halted at a certain point with heat to create malt. How long and hot the malt is heated can determine the flavor the malt gives when it is steeped in hot water. Most Base Malts are not heated, a process called kilning, for very long. This makes them paler in color and gives them more subtle flavors than other malts. Kilning the malt at higher temperature and for longer periods of time changes the contents of the kernel and makes them less able to convert their starches into sugars during mashing.
A lot of processes take place when you add grain to your hot water to mash. Starches in the barley are converted to simple sugars that yeast can process. This is called conversion and is possible because of the enzymes that are in the barley. Base Malts contain a lot of these enzymes and are able to self-convert. This means that if you had a mash of only a specific kind of base malt, say pale 2-row or Maris Otter, the malt has everything it needs to change its starches to sugars by itself. This ability to self-convert is referred to as Diastatic Power, and is assigned a number (ex: 2 row has a diastatic power of about 140) On the flip side a specialty grain like Caramel or Crystal cannot convert itself because the higher temperature and longer amount of time required to kiln it destroys those enzymes . You need to have enough base malt in your grain bill to make sure you have enough enzymes to convert the starches into sugars in your mash. This isn’t something you really have to consciously worry about, almost any recipe will have enough base malt to convert the mash properly.
Kinds of Base Malt
2 Row Pale Malt: The most generic base malt has a very light grain/malt or bread crust or oyster cracker flavor and light color. This is the base for most beer recipes you find on the internet, as well as the bulk of most craft beers.
Pale Ale Malt: Pretty much the same as 2 row, it is just kilned ever-so-slightly darker. This will give a little more malty flavor and very slightly darker colored wort. While not necessarily interchangeable with 2 row, it would probably be so close that there wouldn't be much of a noticeable difference in the finished beer. There are a myriad of Pale Ale malts, English, Belgian, even an Irish variety.
Pilsner, Pilsen, etc.: This is the lightest of all the base malts. Even lighter than 2 row, it will produce a very pale wort with very light bready flavors. It may produce slightly sweeter beer, depending on the yeast and the rest of the grain bill. Generally Germam, Belgain and American versions are widely available. Beers containing high percentages of Pilsner Malt can have issues with an off flavor called Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS), producing a corn or creamed corn flavor. You can avoid this issue by making sure you boil with the lid off, boil vigorously, and chill your wort quickly. Learn more about DMS here.
Maris Otter: The quintessential British malt, it provides a very nice, toasty more nutty and slightly sweeter with a somewhat richer flavor. Generally used as the bulk of the base for many British-style beers or beers looking for a fuller, maltier body. Because it is kilned slightly higher, it has about half of the diastatic power of regular 2 row. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it will give you less beer than another malt, but it might give you a slightly sweeter flavor in the finished beer.
Golden Promise: Another British style base malt, sometimes described as “Marris Otter Light.” Will produce light, sweet wort with bready flavors. Also largely popular with Scottish brewers as it was heavily planted in Scotland up through the 1990’s. It is touted as the best base malt for Scottish style and some British style ales.
Vienna Malt: Many times not considered to be a base malt, but statistically is able to comprise 100% of the grain bill in your beer. Most of the time used as the base grain for Vienna Lager, it is also popularly used in lighter continental styles like Festbier and Maibock. Slight malt sweetness, flavors of raw bread dough.
Munich Malt: Also considered by many to be a specialty malt, Munich can definitely be the single malt in your next beer. In fact, a 100% Munich Malt beer with the right traditional German hop can be a very excellent Marzen. Toasted Bread, slight honey flavors, slightly more rich flavor than Vienna.
Wheat Malt: Just because Barley is currently the most used malt in brewing, don’t think it’s the only one at the party. Malted Wheat has been used in brewing longer than barley. Today, very few brewers use 100% wheat malt in beer, but you certainly can (especially if brewing in a bag). Wheat malt gives a lighter body than barley does, often bringing a touch of acidity that can be pretty refreshing. Color-wise and depending on the maltster, a nice orange-y wort will be produced from 100% wheat malt beer.
Rye Malt: I am going to throw Rye Malt here because you can use it for up to 50% of your grain bill in styles like Roggenbier. However, it is unlikely that many people will make a beer with much more Rye than that. Rye is an ancient grain that has been used in beer for a very long time and will give an earthy, spicy quality to the finished beer. Generally, 10% is considered the minimum for Rye flavor, with most homebrewers going between 10-40% in their beers. At the higher usages, you’re going to taste some rye. Increasing the usage of rye will impart a dryness to the beer, as well. Just like wheat, when using large percentages of rye, you might have problems with sparging (unless you BIAB).
There is a heck of a lot of information when it comes to base malts and other malt in general. If you are interested in learning more on malt, there is a plethora of information on the internet and in print. An excellent resource in print is Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Farmhouse by John Mallett, pictured below. I own this book, read it a few times and use it as a reference frequently.
There are a bunch of really great podcast entries from The Brülosophy Podcast regarding Base Malts, and I’ve listed them here. Understanding base malts will help you craft better beer by laying a great foundation to build up from.
James Holland is a South Jersey homebrewer, craft beer nerd, and beer and brewing writer. Homebrewing since 2013, he boiled the yeast on his first batch but now enters Regional and National Competitions. He encourages anyone interested in homebrewing to experiment, make mistakes, read a lot and Relax, Don't Worry, Have A Homebrew. Oh, and join a club!