Choosing the Best Base Malt for Your Beer
Malt is often called the Soul of Beer, and that is a very apt description. You can drastically change the color, body and overall flavor of your beer just by changing the base malt. This week on BrewCranium we'll talk about different base malts and how to choose the best one for what you want to make.
What's The Difference?
The majority of craft beer that you taste these days is made with American 2 Row Malt, which is consistent, high quality, versatile and cost effective. So why change at all?
One HUGE advantage that we have as homebrewers is that we brew small batches, and generally don't have a bottom line to worry about. This means an upgrade from American 2 Row to Golden Promise isn't going to hit us like it does a craft brewery, and we have the freedom to experiment.
Base Malt is based on one type of malt 'family', which are malt types processed in a standardized way to create enough enzymatic potential (this is called diastatic power) to convert their own starches into the sugars we need when we make beer. This is where we get the term base malt, as it can be used as a base for any beer and make enough of the right sugars that our yeast can eat.
Pilsner Malt is the lightest and least modified, and generally used to make very pale beers. Because of lower kilning temperatures, there is also more potential for DMS (dimethyl sulfide) in the finished beer, which can come across as cooked corn, and requires a longer boiling period (90 Minutes). Although traditionally used for malty, European styles, pilsner malt can be used in any beer style. It is lighter in color, and has a fresh, green and grainy flavor. Being the least modified of the base malts, pilsner malts usually only have a moderate diastatic power.
Pale Malt is a broad term used for malts like American 2 Row that are high in diastatic power, and can be used not only to convert their own sugars, but to convert sugars in other grains and adjuncts as well. Generally speaking, you can use 2 Row Pale to help convert flaked adjuncts and other malts with sugar potential and little to no diastatic power. For the most part, if you can get sugar out, and you have enough pale malt in your recipe, it will be converted. There is enough enzyme in this malt style that enzymatic conversion is all but instantaneous. You can expect a deeper malt flavor from pale malts than from pilsner malts, but still get a light, grainy flavor.
Pale Ale Malts were originally created for making English Style Pale Ales, and have a distinctly malty flavor. They have evolved quite a bit over the last few years, becoming lighter and crisper while maintaining their distinctly malt forward flavor, but some of the oldest types, like Maris Otter and Golden Promise, are still some of the best out there. Pale ale malt is generally darker than pilsner and pale malts, and lower in diastatic power, with more forward malt flavor and body.
Vienna Malt is a darker base malt, resulting in a unique orange color, and gives your beer a lightly nutty, slightly toasty characteristic. It is lower in diastatic power, but is the driving force in styles like Oktoberfest and helps add a crisp flavor to any beer style.
Munich Malt covers a fairly broad range of colors from light to dark. It is a very distinct malt that is crazy delicious as 10% to 100% of the malt bill, adding a quintessential malty and lightly bready flavor. Munich also helps add body to any beer.
All of these malts are different types and varieties of 2 Row Barley, grown and malted in different climates, and using different methods, to produce an even wider variety of diastatic power and flavors, which is why there are so many different options out there. Alternative Grain Malts, like Malted Rye or Wheat, are also considered base malts, and can also have a wide variety of flavors. Malted Rye is more commonly used as a specialty malt due to high levels of beta-glucans, but is technically a base malt as it has enough diastatic power to convert itself, although just barely. Malted Rye lends a dry and grainy flavor that can come across slightly spicy, but is also very reminiscent of malted wheat. Because of the high levels of beta-glucans, it can add a syrupy body at and above 10% of the grain bill.
Malted Wheat is also a base malt, and wheat can go into any beer to add proteins to the overall beer, which helps with head formation and foam retention. Malted Wheat can give your beer a very distinct wheat flour characteristic, and is great for German and Belgian style beers.
So What Kind of Base Malt Should I Use In My Beer?
When choosing malted barley for your base malt, consider your beer recipe, or what you’re trying to craft. East Coast IPA? Pilsner style with Saaz hops or other noble hops? Deliciously thick barrel aged stout? Choose the base malt type that best suits the finished product as you want it to be. Below are some of the guidelines I use when deciding on a base malt for any given style.
First and foremost, I ask what the malt is giving me in a beer. If I’m making a Brut IPA, with no residual sugar, then I will stick to American 2 Row, as it’s cost effective, clean and consistent. This is a hop driven beer with a clean yeast profile, so why go anything but 2 Row, unless you want a lighter color, in which case you’d use a Pilsner malt. What about a big, malty English Barleywine? Now, it’s time spend the extra cash and get a high end Pale Ale Malt that will come through in your beer and compliment your specialty malts while adding sugar and backbone, as well as being the most complimented by the English yeast strain you’re fermenting with. If doing a lager style beer, it’s worth using pilsner or vienna, supplemented with munich, to make sure you get as much flavor as possible out of the crisp and clean lager yeast.
From this launching point, once you’ve decided what kind of beer you want and what yeast you will use, it’s usually easy to decide what the best kind of base malt is and explore the options. For example, do you want to use Belgian Pilsner or German Pilsner for your lager? Maris Otter or Golden Promise for your stout or barleywine?
What If I Don’t Know What All Of These Malts Are or What’s Available?
Before you do anything else, get the book on Malt by John Mallett. This book is a comprehensive, soup to nuts bible on everything about malt. Then, come down to BrewChatter or your LHBS and taste them all side by side! One of the best ways to decide between Golden Promise and American 2 Row for your American Pale Ale is by tasting them side by side and seeing what you like the best. Or, try a S.M.A.S.H. with your malts, changing only the malt each time you brew it. This gives you a real-life flavor and brew house performance example of all of the different base malts.
If you have any base malt questions, or want to chat further about your brew and base malt, leave us a comment below! Thank you for reading!