Whether From Grain or Extract, Malt is Beer’s Heart and Soul
Malted grain is one of the four primary ingredients needed to make beer –the others being hops, yeast and water. Of the four, malted grain contributes the most to the beer’s overall character, including its sweetness, color, the proteins and dextrins that contribute to body, mouthfeel, head retention –and perhaps most importantly, the sugars needed to feed the yeast during fermentation.
Brewing grain can be divided into two categories: “base grain” and “specialty grain”. Base grain is that which is malted and mashed to create the fermentable base of the beer. Specialty grain is that which is added to the base grain to create different colors, flavors and textures in the finished beer. Specialty grains may include wheat, oats, rye, or barley that has been roasted or toasted to various degrees of color and flavor.
Traditionally speaking, malted barley is used in its raw form to make beer. In order to render the malt sugars (maltose) from the grain, however, the grain must be mashed, or steeped in very hot water (but not boiled) for a specific period of time. Strict time and temperature control is important to maximize the yield, or efficiency of the mash.
The Mashing Process
The mashing process can be somewhat long and laborious and is much too detailed to cover completely in this article, but here’s a simplified overview. First, the grain must be measured or weighed according to the beer recipe requirements. Then it must be milled (just enough to crack the hard outer kernel) and added to hot water at a precise temperature. Throughout the mashing process, the water temperature will be increased a few times and held at temperature plateaus for specific periods of time. The pH balance of the mash water is also measured and adjusted, if necessary, throughout the mashing process. Eventually, the process liquefies the maltose in the grain by way of enzymes which break down the grains’ starchy interior. The hot water dissolves the maltose and drains it away to be made into beer. This syrupy, sugar-laden liquid is referred to as wort (a German brewing term for unfermented beer).
Luckily for homebrewers, the mashing process is an option rather than a requirement. There is a product that allows them to bypass the mashing processes and all of its labor-intensive effort. Liquid malt extract is basically a commercially-made condensed syrup made from malted grain (it’s also widely used in the baking industry). Malt extract is made in a variety of pale to dark colors and flavors, often packaged and sold according to beer style.
The best malt extracts are those that are made from 100% pure maltose, meaning there are no processed sugars (cane, beet or corn) added. The typical malt concentrate contains about 20% of its original water content, so it is very viscous and needs to be re-hydrated in your brew pot early in the process of brewing the beer.
Extract: Liquid vs. Dry
Because liquid malt extract is very thick, sticky and perishable, there is also powdery dry malt extract available. DME is simply liquid malt extract that has been spray-dried in a vacuum chamber to remove 99% of its water content. DME maintains all of liquid malt extract’s color and flavor qualities, but it is much more easily measured and stored, and it has a much longer shelf life. Liquid malt extract should be kept refrigerated and used within six months of packaging, dry malt extract can be kept un-refrigerated for up to two years –even longer if it’s well-sealed.
Whether homebrewers choose to use liquid extract or dry extract, it’s always best to use the palest extract available, no matter which beer style you brew. The color, flavor and texture of your beer can be easily derived from specialty grain by simply steeping it in very warm water and then pouring the resulting liquid through a sieve into your extract-based wort. This method is very effective at producing a much more authentic flavor in your beer.