Specialty Malts: What Makes Them So Special?
Article by Alex Costa, Craft Brewer and Homebrewer
Alex has been a friend of the shop for many years, and even almost came over to work here before he got an offer from Modern Times that he couldn't refuse. Although we hated to see him go, who could resist Modern Times!?
We were happy to hear that he had come back to brew for Revision Brewing Company. Alex and I have had quite a few long talks about specialty grains and building beers, so naturally he was my first choice to write an article about using specialty malts, and what really makes them what they are. Enjoy!
Specialty Malts: What Makes Them So Special
By Alex Costa
It’s that time of year, the days have gotten longer, the nights have gotten colder and this New England IPA just isn’t doing it for me as I binge my 8th episode of the Great British Baking Show. I crave something darker, bolder and more complex. What makes a beer darker, bolder, and more complex though? The answer of course is specialty malts.
Now, darker beers gets a bad rap. Often judged by their color before their taste, dark beer gets relegated to the bottom of most tap lists. While this is a terrible loss for the drinking world that doesn’t mean we as homebrewers shouldn’t explore the myriad options we have to make delicious dark beer. So while hop heads are trying to figure out what hops to add to their new IPA ( It’s probably Citra, Simcoe, or Mosaic because what other hops really matter? ), let’s do a little dive into the often overlooked but equally delicious world of specialty malts.
While hops remain the “sexy” beer ingredient it still blows my mind how many specialty malts exist. Most of these specialty malts have arbitrary names, think brown malt or crystal 170. Some of them have very descriptive names such as Chocolate, Kiln Coffee, or Biscuit. What they all have in common is they are complex and when used properly can transform an otherwise bland beer to something truly transcendent. I want to start on the low end of the lovibond scale and slowly progress upwards so without further ado let's get started.
This gem of a malt comes in at 20-25 Lovibond and like its namesake has a distinct honey flavor to it. What I love about this malt is the distinct floral bouquet you get from it. Honey malt reminds me of years spent fishing in high sierra valleys covered in wildflowers during early spring. This character is wonderfully complex, versatile and I’m not exaggerating when I say you could use this malt in almost any beer style you can imagine. I’ve used this in many different saisons, several stouts, and most recently a smoked wheat beer with currants. You can use this malt in several ways. In lighter beers like saisons, wheat beers, hefeweizens I use 5-10% to add that distinct honey flavor and in darker beers or IPA I like to use it in the 2-5% range for complexity and to add some sweetness on the back end. Be really careful balancing your beer with this malt. While using higher percentages can lend excellent flavor and aroma complexity this malt is very sweet and needs to be balanced otherwise you risk a finished product that is too sweet or even cloying, Adding some simple sugar to your grain bill (or actual honey), and mashing lower say >150 F will help balance that sweetness.
This british “crystal” malt falls in the 25-35 lovibond range and has a wonderfully complex toasty, biscuit, chex mix cereal flavor. What I think makes this malt special is its ability to add complex flavors without adding the sweet fruity flavors you get from american crystal malts. I think this malt is perfect for any british style beer, but it really shines in an amber or brown ale. It can even compliment hoppier interpretations of these styles and you can be confident the residual sweetness won’t clash with a higher IBU level. I recommend using 5-10% of Amber malt in your grist.
If I could only have one crystal malt to use for the rest of my life Crisp Brown would be that malt. Brown malt falls into the 55-75 lovibond range and contributes a bold, dark rye crust, buckwheat pancake, slightly nutty flavor. I even get some light espresso flavors from it. Like the Amber malt it’s quite dry and doesn’t contribute the darker fruit flavors and sweetness you could get from a C-80. This malt is perfect for a porter, stout, mild, brown ale, or baltic porter. I recommend using a 3-8% in your grist. This malt does add a subtle bitterness so if you are using this for the first time err low.
This delicious malt is a real dark horse in the specialty malt world. It comes in around 150-180 Lovibond and has a very distinct espresso, biscotti, bitter chocolate character to it. I love this malt in an american stout, imperial stout, pastry stout or in any beer that you plan to use in conjunction with actual coffee or other adjuncts. Try it with vanilla for a latte or mocha inspired beer, or spice it up with some cinnamon, ginger, and allspice in a pumpkin beer. I’ve used up to a pound of this in a 5 gallon batch or as little as a few ounces to replace or accentuate a smoked malt. This malt makes a great addition to any scottish style ale and can really add some complexity that will make your beer stand apart from commercial examples of any style. Just remember when using Kiln Coffee to build some balance into your recipe. This malt really needs a slightly higher finishing gravity, some maltodextrin or sweeter crystal malts to balance it as it can quickly overpower malt bills and the flavors it lends to a beer can often come across as acidic. I recommend 1-10% usage in your malt bill but really with proper balance the sky's the limit with this malt.
Blackprinz is a cool newer malt from Briess which is debittered and dehusked. What does this mean? Well simply put you can use this malt without worrying about any bitter astringent acrid flavors you might get from say a black malt or roasted barley! This makes Blackprinz a very versatile malt and a real workhorse for anyone who likes to put the word “black” or “dark” in front of a beer style. I have used this malt in a dark lager, dark saison, and several scottish ales but really it can be used in any dark beer. This malt lends some really lovely espresso and dark chocolate flavors. Blackprinz really surprised me once when I used about 5% of it in a saison in conjunction with some malted rye. It had the most beautiful pumpernickel bread character. I liked it so much it has become one of my go to fall recipes and it really goes well with a nice fire. I haven’t personally used more than 5% of this malt in a grain bill but with its smooth roasty character I would say you could probably go up to 10-15% if you were feeling adventurous.
Again remember to balance your beer. With any specialty malt you run the risk of a highly acidic or acrid character if not balanced properly. When using any specialty malt err on the low side of any recommended usage percentages. This way you can get a feel for what each malt contributes and reduce the possibility of giving your beer an off flavor. Also take everything in the article with a grain of malt. These suggestions come from my personal experience and as always your mileage may vary. I hope this article has been informative and you give some of these unique malts a try next time you whip up a batch of beer.
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