When talking about grain used to make beer it makes sense to start with barley. While other grains are also used to make beer, barley is by far the most common.
Before we can use barley to brew beer, it must first be put through a process called malting, which triggers the formation of enzymes that transform proteins and starches into fermentable sugars.
The malting process starts with drying the grains to an ideal moisture level and then storing them. Next, the barley is steeped in hot water to allow absorption of moisture and cause it to sprout. (Think of it like this: you’ve just tricked it into thinking it’s springtime.) Once the optimal moisture level is reached, the barley is transferred to the germination floor where it is constantly turned while it air dries. After several days, the malt is kiln-dried to the desired color and specification. The amount of heat applied during the kiln-drying process has a profound effect on the end-result, with malts ranging from a lightly roasted pale color to a rich, dark heavily roasted black.
While this is a simplified explanation, you get the point; our newly malted barley is now perfect for our sugar hungry yeast to start making beautiful beer.
Malted barley is broadly classified into two categories, base malts, and specialty malts.
Base malts make up the vast majority of grain in most brews, as they deliver a high amount of the proteins, fermentable sugars, and minerals required to brew beer.
Common varieties include:
Brewers Malt, Pilsner Malt, Pale Ale Malt, Maris Otter, Kölsch
The variety chosen will have a profound effect on the final beer as the likes of a Pilsner Malt will produce a delicate, crystal clear and crisp beer; whereas a Maris Otter malt will deliver a rich flavor that is perfect for British style ales from bitters to IPA’s, and even stouts.
Dark-colored specialty malts are combined with the base malts, often making up 10 – 25% of the total grain bill. When added, these grains are great for adding color, aroma, and flavor; they can also increase body and head.
Specialty malts come in the following broad categories:
Crystal malt (sometimes referred to as caramel malt) is produced by drying the germinated barley at specially controlled temperatures that cause sugars to caramelize. They are primarily known for adding color and sweetness to beer. Their color and caramel sweetness varies from variety to variety depending on the kiln roasting temperature. Crystal malt can also make for a great head on beer!
Crystal (or caramel malts) vary greatly, from candy-like sweetness to burnt sugar and even woody characteristics.
Dark specialty malts undergo a high temperature during roasting to achieve robust flavors. They are often amber or dark in color and feature in styles such a stout, porter, and bock. These malts are used in smaller quantities than lighter malts because of their strong flavor and color characteristics.
Amber Malt, Munich, Vienna, Brown
Roasted malts are kilned to a high degree, producing a very dark colored finish. The process is very similar to how coffee beans are processed, with the most common varieties being chocolate malt and black malt.
Chocolate malt is not roasted as heavily as black malt. It delivers a beautiful dark color with burnt toast dryness; chocolate malts are perfect for stouts, porters, milds, and old ales.
Black malt is an extremely dark and heavily kilned malted barley that results in a more bitter flavor than chocolate malt.
Not to be confused with the roasted malts above, roasted barley is unmalted barley that is roasted until black. It is used to impart a dry, burnt flavor to stouts.
Why is Barley the most common grain?
Barley is particularly effective in the production of beer due to its husks, which act as a natural drainage enhancer by keeping the grain loose during fermentation. In other words, the water can pass through more easily.
Other grains used to brew beer
Wheat – This protein-rich grain is imperative for brewing hefeweizen or witbier. Wheat is also used in malt based beer using smaller quantities to give a fuller mouthfeel and enhanced head stability. Wheat can impart a slight tartness in flavor. Because of the higher protein content, wheat also produces a hazy finish.
Oats – Used regularly in conjunction with barley to brew smooth and full bodied oatmeal stouts. See our review of Samuel Smiths classic Oatmeal Stout as an example.
Rye – Another grain that works well in conjunction with barley to add complexity such as subtle spice and crispness. It can also make beer drier. Processed in a kiln, Rye will transform into the bringer of chocolate, or sometimes caramel flavor.
Corn & Rice – I’ve grouped these ingredients together as both are considered an adjunct ingredient used primarily to lighten a beer’s body. Corn will provide a smooth, sweet flavor while rice imparts little or no taste.
Sorghum – While this grass ingredient from Africa is not a grain, it’s worth mentioning for its increasing use as a malt substitute in the production of gluten-free beer. For an example of sorghum in gluten-free beer, check out our review of Groundbreaker Pale Ale.
So there you have it; a nice crash-course in the most common grains used to brew beautiful beer. With the above information, you’ll go a long way to understanding the foundations of most beer styles brewed today. As always, if you have anything to add, please do comment below. To share the knowledge with a fellow craft beer lover simply hit share below.