What is the Role of Malt in the Brewing Process?

Malting is a complex, multi-step process that is important for new brewers understand.

By Kinnek Knowledge Team  |  June 09, 2018

Malting — the process through which various cereal grains, such as barley, are converted into malted barley (e.g. malt) — is a critical pre-requisite phase in the brewing process, as it creates the ingredients that will later be fermented in the brewhouse.  If you’re just getting started with brewing, you may not be entirely familiar with the malting process.  In fact, you may be wondering about the malting process, and whether any of it should be handled in-house.

The production of malt is a laborious process that demands specialized knowledge, care, and facilities.  By and large, brewers purchase bulk malt from malthouses, where professional maltsters supervise the process from beginning-to-end.  In today’s brewing industry, there are a number of players in the malthouse space — from industrial scale, global malt producers, to independent malthouses with a more regional orientation.

Before you commit to a purchase, however, let’s take a brief moment to consider the process of malting and how your particular needs might dictate the type of commercial malt that you might use for brewing.

How Malting Works

Malting converts the grain — here, barley — into malt, which provides the carbohydrates and sugars, and activates the necessary enzymes, that will be used in the fermentation process (the brewer’s yeast will interact with the sugar solution and enzymes of the malt product).

Malting is a multi-step process involving: 1) soaking raw barley in water, which begins to break down the structure of the barley and release the desired sugars and enzymes; 2) steeping of the  resultant barley seeds/kernels, which occurs in a controlled, sanitized tank environment where air is passed through the barley (thus allowing the seeds/kernels to sprout and germinate); and 3) the drying of the sprouted barley in a heated kiln.

Malting creates malted barley.  Brewers can purchased malted barley and subsequently soak and mash the malt in hot water, which will spark the enzyme activity in the malted barley — this gives the brewer access to fermentable sugar content, which the brewer’s yeast will interact with.

Purchasing Bulk Malts for Brewing

Not all malt is the same.  When purchasing bulk malts for brewing, you’ll have a broad selection of malts to choose from — your decision will not only depend on pricing, quality, and other such factors, but will depend on the type of beer that you intend to brew with the malt.

Generally speaking, the amount of heat that sprouted barley kernels are exposed to in the third phase of the malting process determines their “roast” level.  The more heat that the barley kernels are exposed to, the darker the malt roast.

Malted barley that has been roasted for only a short time (and exposed to less heat) are typically used to brew “lighter” beers, such as pilsners.  On the other hand, dark roasts of malted barley are typically used to brew heavier beers, such as brown ales or stouts.  The flavor profile and aroma of these beers depend fundamentally on the roast-level of the malted barley used to brew them.  You cannot create a proper brown ale with a light roast malt, for example.

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