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.
The quality of the base malt in your beer depends on many factors, three of which you can control: purchasing quality barley (at reasonable cost), storing it in a way that keeps it in mint condition, and following that up with a good crush.
Purchasing Quality Barley
Choices abound when it comes to base malts. 2-row and 6-row. Domestic, Canadian, English, and continental (German or Belgian). Ale and pilsen. Very pale and lightly kilned. Which malt you choose depends mainly on what kind of beer you want to make and what malts are available at reasonable cost.
Great beers can be made with 2-row or 6-row malted barley. The majority of homebrewers today use 2-row because, in general, the flavor is more refined. 6-row can sometimes taste excessively grainy.
On the other hand, 6-row is typically cheaper and it has a higher diastatic power, meaning that it contains more enzymes to convert starches to sugars during the mash. This is useful if you use a lot of starchy adjuncts, like corn or oatmeal, in your beer. Otherwise, the diastatic power of 2-row is plenty adequate to convert starches to sugars. Briess, a major maltster, has a nice discussion of 2-row and 6-row barley on their website. My advice is that unless you have a ton of starchy adjuncts in your beer, you should use 2-row for better flavor.
As for the country of origin, generally you should match country for country and style for style. Use German pilsen malt for German lagers, American ale malt for American ales, etc. Keep in mind that there is probably greater variation in character from one season to the next in the same malt than there is between, for example, German and Belgian pilsen malts from the same season. Great American ales can be made with European malts and vice versa. My advice to match style and country of origin if you can, but don't sweat it if you can't. (In truth, the yeast you choose and fermentation conditions will have much more impact on the final malt character of your beer.)
Consider layering base malts in some beers. A little pilsen malt (one pound per five gallons) contributes a smoother mouthfeel to an American ale made with ale malt. Lightly kilned malts like Munich, Vienna, and Biscuit can bring a wonderful breadiness. But keep in mind that these malts have a slightly lower diastatic power.
Finally, make sure the malt you buy is fresh and has been stored responsibly. Try to buy from a shop with high stock turnover, and buy 55-pound bags of your favorite base malt—it will have been handled less and costs dramatically less per pound.
Storage is straightforward and common sense. Keep your malt sealed in bags or plastic bins away from the threats of moths, oxygen, moisture, and mold. Store in a cool, dry, and dark place.
The goal of the crush is to break apart the endosperm of the barley, which contains the starch, without destroying the husks. Breaking up the endosperm makes it possible for the diastatic enzymes to access the starches and convert them into dissolved sugars in the mash. You want to the husks to remain intact, however, to assist with filtering the hot liquor during the lauter (draining the hot liquor out of the mash tun and into the kettle). Crush size is a balance between these aims.
Most homebrew shops have a grain mill that you can use (be sure to ask for directions the first time). It will likely be already set to a good crush size, but you can test it. If you don't have your own mill, buy and crush only enough barley for your next batch and try to use it quickly because crushed grain will go bad from oxygen exposure (on the timescale of weeks, not hours or days).
If, on the other hand, you have just built a mash tun and are excited to go all in for all-grain, buying you own mill will save you money in the rather long end (because you can buy grain by the 55-pound bag and store it at home to crush on demand) and provide convenience and flexibility. You want a mill that is sturdy, easy to mount (mine sits on top of a 5-gallon brewing bucket with its built-in baseboard), and adjustable.
One of the most popular home mills is the Barley Crusher. It is relatively inexpensive and very well-built. It comes with a hand crank, but you can use a power drill instead. (A cordless drill will probably not have adequate power.) Make sure you follow all of the safety guidelines—never put your hands in the hopper while you are milling.
Do you brew all-grain? Do you mill at home?