What is Smoked Malt, And Why Should I Homebrew With It?
Smoked Malts have been around a long time, a lot longer than you'd think! This week on BrewCranium, we delve into the malting process, talk a little bit of beer history, and explore different smoked malts and what they can do for your beer.
A Brief History of Malting
One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how someone ever thought to come up with the concept of malting grain. I’m pretty sure it was the Egyptians, and that it was a complete accident, as making beer probably was, but the required foresight to see what was actually happening, the benefits and uses of this malted barley, then figure out how to malt it more or less consistently is absolutely astounding to me! I mean, I’m sure it wasn’t an overnight thing, but considering the role this process plays for us brewer’s and the world, I am both humbled and grateful.
The malting process is simple, yet complicated. The fundamental steps include steeping, germination and kilning. The first step is steeping the malt to raise the moisture levels to a point where it will allow sprout growth, followed by allowing that sprout growth to happen under controlled conditions, then finally kilning or drying the malt to stop sprout growth and take the majority of the moisture back out of the grain. I’m betting that during the 5th century this was a VERY different process than it is today, though!
Let’s jump ahead a little to the Middle Ages and just before. Brewing was more of a local, domestic endeavor, a concept you can still see throughout Europe, with small local pubs that serve their one or two beers to a specific neighborhood or village. Back then, we were all homesteaders, and if we wanted beer, we had to grow the barley or trade for it, malt it ourselves, then turn it into beer. Malting wasn’t a science, it was a process passed down from generation to generation, in much the same way the preparation of preserves was.
If we really focus on the kilning or drying part of the malting process, what were the options? If you had a few handfuls of grain, enough to make… an urn, I guess, of beer, then spreading them on a rock in the sun was fine. But what about a big family? Lots of kids that need beer to work the fields, a dad that has to run it all, and a mom that has to feed a veritable army of family and run the household? That’s a significant amount of beer, just for parental sanity! You’d need a fair bit of malt, and a way to process it all at once. Drying it over a fire seems a reasonable solution to this problem, and more often than not, that’s what happened.
People used the materials they had at hand, mostly wood, and using a smoked type of malt, smokey flavor in the beer was more common than not. So common, in fact, that it wasn’t until after the Middle Ages had ended and brewing became a more commercialized endeavor that this was viewed as a problem.
Over time, with advancements in malting and malting equipment, such as indirect fire malting kilns, maltsters began trying to remove the smoke flavor from malts, along with introducing more variety.
Modern Smoked Malts
Let’s fast forward again a few hundred years. Malting these days has tons of good science and research behind it, and malted barley, malted wheat and rye comes in crystallized malts, caramelized malts, base malts and roasted malts. After years and years of advancement, you would think that this antiquated flavor would have been eradicated completely, but, lucky for us, it hasn’t!
Thanks, in part, to Bamberg breweries and the Scots, smoked malts are still around for us to enjoy. For a long time in London, London Porters were known for having smoked characteristics, and many Scotch Whisky brands to this day are known for their intense, peat smoked flavors. Let’s talk about what kinds of smoked malts are out there, and what you should be brewing with them!
Give Me All The Smoked Malts
Thanks to innovation, and the foresight to keep smoked malts around, there are a ton of different kinds of smoked malts. Most smoked malts, especially the ones with a lighter lovibond, have enough diastatic power to be the only malt in the mash tun, but that depends on what kinds of flavors you like, and it makes for a seriously strong beer. Most are kilned similarly to Vienna or Munich Malt specifications, and under the smoke, they have a similar character.
Peat Smoked Malt is the mother of all smoked malts. It is produced by kilning pale ale malt over peat fires, and the flavor is VERY distinct. This is one of the strongest, most poignant smoked malts readily available. Classically, the Scots would dry their huge lots of malting grain over peat fires, and in many Scotch Whiskys, you can definitely tell. As a rule of thumb for beer, anything over 2.5 - 5% can easily take over the entire flavor profile. Many brewers and maltsters agree that peated malt should stay in whisky. Personally, I disagree. If you can use reasonable amounts to add a slight acrid and smokey hint to your beer, like in our Midnight Mercenary beer kit, it can come across wonderfully, adding a slightly smokey backdrop that enhances the rest of the beer instead of taking over. With peated malt, a little goes a long way, and it’s all about balance.
Mesquite Smoked Malt delivers a lighter smoked character than peated malt. It is more woody and less sweet than the bar-b-que meatiness of Cherry Wood Smoked malt. Briess uses not only mesquite wood to make this malt, but also a variety of other hardwoods to balance out the flavor and character, which comes across as very lightly sweet wood smoke without the expected harshness of a campfire. Try this in Scottish Ales, Oktoberfests and Porters and you will not be disappointed. If you keep the percentage moderate, in the 15% range, you can get a slightly pronounced, smooth smokey earth flavor that balances well with roasted and specialty malts. Stay tuned for a Wee Heavy with this malt!
Cherry Wood Smoked Malt is incredible. It’s like a sweet bacon sandwich wrapped in beer. It comes through in your beer very subtly, and as such may require more than you would think to be more than a balanced, background flavor. It’s much sweeter than peated or mesquite smoked malts, so it blends well with maltier styles. I know I said this before, but this malt is MEATY. The brisket-y, bacon-y characteristic of this malt is extremely unique, and can have a really cool effect on many beer styles. It’s definitely worth experimenting with!
German Beech Smoked Malt is a classic malt, one of the best produced by Weyermann. They use beechwood that they season and age much like barrel producers season their oak staves. They also kiln it a bit lighter, like you would if you were making a pilsner malt. Although the Weyermann version is more of an ‘Old World’ type of smoked malt, it is still distinct while not overpowering. Many of the peated and Briess smoked malts have a much more forward smoke character in similar percentages of the grain bill.
Smoke flavors in beer, and whisky, for that matter, seem to be a very polarizing flavor characteristic. You know if you like smoke or not, with very few people on the line. One of the best beers I’ve ever had is a smoked helles out of Bamberg, from a classic smoked brewery called Schlerkerla. The flavor is a light and malty German style lager, crisp and light, with a wonderful undertone all the way through the palette of delicious smoke. I also love the balance of Alaskan’s Smoked Porter (they make their smoked malt from Alder wood in conjunction with a local salmon smokehouse), with it’s meaty undertones and malt balance, although I’ve found I enjoy it more after a couple of years of aging.
The point here is that if you like smoke, you HAVE to experiment with some of these malts! Classically, many of the German Smoked Beers (Rauchbier) use Marzen as a base, a malty German lager. Use the malt profile in a Marzen, Porter or Stout to experiment with different styles of smoked malts and make something that isn’t widely available in this day and age. Experimentation is what homebrewing is all about!
Thank you for reading! I hope this brief history of malting and smoked beers inspires you to brew something out of the box! If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to keep the conversation rolling! Leave your comments below and brew on!