Many folks believe that the darker the color of a given beer the greater the alcohol content. This is simply not the case. Consider Guinness Pub Draft, which is as dark in hue as a cup of espresso. With an alcohol content of 4.3 percent, it technically qualifies as a light beer. The color is determined by the level of roast applied to the malt, and the alcohol content is determined by the amount of malt or other fermentable sugars used.
Just as an artist has a broad array of colorful paints on his palette to choose from, a brewmaster has an impressive selection of malts when brewing beer, ranging from very light golden to roasted onyx. The brewing artist can blend different styles of malt to create an infinite number of variations of brew. Hops provide the seasoning and flavor. Think of malt as a bowl of plain spaghetti, which by itself is pretty bland. Adding red pepper flakes and anchovies kicks up the flavor. Malt provides the flavor bedrock of beer, and hops are the seasoning.
Commercial brewers such as Budweiser and Miller use adjuncts such as corn, rice or corn syrup in conjunction with malted barley. Corn is the most commonly used adjunct in this country. Corn has a sweet flavor and helps reduce haze. Coors Light and Miller Light use corn syrup (dextrose) in addition to malted barley. Rice has almost no flavor by itself but allows the malt flavor to come through as a crisp, refreshing beverage. Budweiser uses rice in addition to malted barley. Craft brewers such as Deschutes and Salem’s Parkway are more inclined to use an all-malt recipe resulting in bolder flavors and richer texture.
Because beer is regulated by the Tax and Trade Bureau instead of the Food and Drug Administration, brewers are not required to list ingredients — and usually don’t. In 2014, a food blogger named Vani Hari writing as The Food Babe published an article about the “shocking” ingredients in commercial beer. She posted an online petition beseeching the brewers to list their ingredients. Although her article was not entirely accurate, the major brewers soon published the ingredients in their beers on their websites. If you wonder about the ingredients in popular commercial beers, a visit to the brewer’s website should answer the question.
What is malted barley anyway? Barley grains are seeds meant for the plant’s reproduction. The starch stored in the grain is food for the infant plant. When the grains are steeped in water, enzymes are released that convert the starches into sugars and the seed begins to germinate. In a modern malting facility, the grains are sorted and cleaned and then steeped in clean, fresh water for about 40 hours. The water is drained and replaced several times. After the moisture content of the barley reaches about 40 percent, the grains are spread on a malting floor and air is circulated through them. The grains begin to spout. The grains are raked or tossed periodically to prevent tangling rootlets.
After about five days, the grains are dried in a kiln at warm temperatures, which stops the germination. The roots are removed, and the grains may be roasted to various levels of darkness up to obsidian-colored char. Malts are rated in degrees Lovibond, where a higher number means darker color. Malts providing the backbone making up the majority of the grist are known as base malts. Malts used for additional flavoring and body are known as specialty malts.
When beer making commences, malt is crushed and steeped with warm water to dissolve the fermentable sugars. The liquid is drained away, and the spent malt is rinsed and then utilized as fertilizer or cattle feed. The liquid, or wort as it is now called, is boiled, and hops are added in increments. The resulting liquid is cooled and then fermented with the addition of yeast to produce beer. Here are some malts brewers might use.
Two row — So named because there are two rows of kernels on a stalk. This commonly used malt will impart sweet flavors and a light straw color to the brew. The Lovibond rating is low — about 1.8. Two row provides the base for Chaos Mountain’s Squatch Ale.
Pilsner — Named after Pilzen, Czech Republic, the home of Pilsner Urquell, this very light malt rates 1.6 to 2.3 on the Lovibond scale. Pilsner is noted for earthy and biscuit flavors.
Pale ale — Slightly darker than Pilsner, it weighs in with a Lovibond rating of about 3 or 4. Pale ale is noted for bread-like flavors with a touch of dried fruit and honey. It provides the base, along with Munich and Caramel, for Deschutes Inversion IPA.
Vienna — This malt is kilned to about 2 to 4 degrees Lovibond. It displays nutty notes and imparts a light color to the brew. Chaos Mountain uses Vienna and other malts for its Mad Hopper IPA.
Munich — This is a bit darker malt with a Lovibond rating of 8 to 10 degrees. Munich imparts notes of caramel and honey and would be used in dark Munich-style lagers. This malt provides the base for Deschutes’ seasonal Hopzeit Autumn IPA.
Crystal — This malt is so named because its malting method produces crystals of sugar on the grain that are not entirely fermentable. The darkness of crystal, or caramel as it is sometimes called, varies from 20 to 188 degrees Lovibond. Crystal malt imparts sweetness, richness, an amber color and good head retention. Roanoke’s Soaring Ridge adds it to two row to give its Trailhead Nut Brown ale a deep amber color.
Chocolate — This grain is roasted to the point of having the deep brown color and flavor of chocolate. The Lovibond rating can be as high as 450 degrees. It is popular in stouts such as Samuel Smith’s Organic Chocolate Stout.
Roasted barley — This barley grain bypasses the malting process and goes straight to the roaster. It displays a dark color and notes of coffee. The Lovibond rating is about 300. It is known for imparting a dark color to the head, as it does in Guinness Extra Stout.
Black patent — This is one of the darkest malts at 500 degrees and is usually used alongside other malts to impart color to the brew but not the head. It is used to darken Soaring Ridge’s Twisted Stump Porter.
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