When it comes to malt flavor in beer, it's helpful to think of your grist (the sum of all grains used in the beer's mash) as a choir. The base grain fills out the risers—the core of the choir's sound—but fades into the background as bold soloists strut their stuff. Specialty grains are those soloists. And what a delicious song they sing.
'malt' on Serious Eats
Now that you're getting pretty darn good at identifying different hop varieties, it's time we looked at another major flavor contributor in beer: malt. You've seen how its made, and if you've ever had Grape Nuts, you've got a pretty good idea of how it tastes on its own. But how can you tell which malts you're drinking when you're drinking beer?
Malt is undeniably more important to beer production than hops—it not only provides the foundation for beer's flavor, but it also imparts the essential sugars necessary for fermentation. Without malting, there is no beer. But ask a homebrewer about his malt, and you'll probably get blank stares.
Crystal malts are a staple in almost every beer recipe. Light crystal malt, like C-20, is used in pale ales, the darker C-120 can be used in stouts, and every recipe in between calls for some variety of crystal. Since crystal malts are among the few styles that do not need to be mashed, they are ideal for extract and partial-mash brewers to use as steeping malts. Anyone can make this fabulously versatile malt at home. All it takes is any standard pale malt, some water and a few hours in the oven.
Two weeks ago I made the case for all-grain brewing and introduced the basics of building a mash tun. You may not have realized yet, but now that you have a mash tun (or will soon), you have suddenly become much more interested in malted barley. Today I want to show you how to get the best quality from your base malt.
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