One of my goals this year in home brewing is to better understand malted barley. I want to learn the process of malting and how they create such a wide variety of flavors. There are hundreds of different styles of barley and you can usually find 60 – 70 at your local home brew shop. Some are light, some dark, some taste nutty and others taste sweet. There is just so much to choose from. There is endless opportunities to create new flavors by mixing grains. This article is a basic look at what malted barley is and how they produce the many varieties that are on the market today.
It all starts with barley. Barley comes in two different types; 2 – row and 6 – row. These simple names are a description of how many rows of grain are on top of the the barley stalk. There is either two rows or six. Two row is the preferred grain for brewing as it produces more starch than six row. Six row will produce more unwanted tannin’s and protein but still can be used for brewing. Six rows is also cheaper by the pound.
The steps to malting grain are actually fairly simple. After the grain is harvested it is dried till the moister content is below 14%. They then let the grain rest for five to six weeks. After the rest period is over they germinate the seed by soaking the grain in water off and on for two to three days. Once the grain starts to spout “chit”, it is then transferred to a malting floor. The malting floor is just that, a giant floor that the grain is laid out on. For just about five days the grain will be turned over constantly while it is air-dried. At this point it is called “green malt”. During the germination process the grain will break down and create more usable starches that can be later converted to sugars. I encourage you to read more on this but I will not be covering the exact science . Just before the plant “acrospire” is about to come through the husk of the grain it is quickly heated up. The heat dries the grain even more and stops all germination. The length and temperature at which the grain is heated creates many of the different variety of grain you have to brew with.
One of the special process done to grain to achieve a sweeter flavor in beer is a process where they re hydrated the grain after the drying process to covert the starches in to sugar. Once that is complete they will dry the grain with heat again. This type of malt is typically called crystal malt. There are a ton of different process they do to achieve different results. Steps where the grain is simply heated to a state of being burnt or just toasted.
Next time you are in a home brew store taste the grain. Take a few pieces and chew on them. Your saliva has almost the same reaction as the mashing process and will produce a similar flavor as a fished beer will have. There are so many endless flavors that can be created. Challenge yourself and start finding out what grain makes what flavor.