Have you ever taken nice refreshing sip of a British pale ale and thought to yourself, "Who put raisins in my beer?!”. Unless you have a drinking buddy who plays practical jokes, the answer is a Maltster.
As the moniker suggests, this is the methodically thoughtful and creative force behind what is the second highest ingredient in our brews, water being the first. The Maltster takes finished barley from the farmer, if he or she isn’t one that is, works and manipulates magic processes normally reserved for Mother Nature. Not only is this where, in large part, the flavor of your beer is initiated, but the actual biological process of creating fermentable sugar for our little buddies, Yeast.
What does this process look like? As usual, Will try to avoid getting to nerdy about it. But essentially the Maltster forces the start of germination that would naturally occur when the barley seed falls to the earth and gets a little rain. Internally, various enzymatic reactions begin which in nature would spark the growth of a new plant, but our maltster halts the process before it goes too far. We want to keep the the carbohydrates in there, just make them accessible. The patient maltster, first gives the little barley kernels a bath. Well, rather a soak, followed by some dry time, followed by a soak, followed by some dry time, essentially ensuring even hydration. Then they watch over their precious brood while keeping the temperatures and moisture levels just right. This is done is several ways, traditionally on the floor in moisture stable areas (hyperlink: http://merryn.dineley.com/2014/06/traditional-floor-malting-neolithic.html), though this method is rarely employed due to the in-effectiveness of manual labor in an ever increasing need to increase the bottom line. Now, giant fancy (and expensive to build!) infrastructure such as a Saladin Box or the mega-ag-giants who use Malting Towers are far more prevalent, though there are the few principled hearty folks who still do it the old fashioned way.
What’s happening in the barley during this carefully watched over procession you ask? The barley begins to break down it’s own complex carbohydrate reserves to feed itself enough sugary goodness to get some roots started and a few sprouts to pop up so it may commence photosynstesis. However, the crafty maltster knows the precise moment to halt the barley’s breakdown of carbohydrate so that as much of it as possible is still left inside the kernel. They do this by warming up the barley enough to dry them out around 5% moisture WITHOUT destroying the enzymes that we brewers later require in the mash. It’s careful dance as the enzymes we need are pretty easily destroyed at high temps sometimes required. But if handled properly, by a well informed and intellectually able maltster, (or a well dialed computer-machine-thing) there should be roughly 80% of the weight of the malt remaining as potentially fermentable extract, a high degree of enzyme retention, and a long list of small amounts of minerals, vitamins, proteins and such left in there to make a delicious meal for our Yeast.
Mind you, this is for what we refer to as base malts. Our Pilsner, Pale, Vienna, Munich and 2-row, to name a few, are all considered base malts. Beyond this is where we can add little bits of spice, as it were. For example, an extreme on the other end is Roast Malt. This is green barley from the field roasted to a high temperature lending not only deep red colors, but a roast bite to the beer. (Next time you’re down here at Gyppo, try the red Rye. See if you can pick out the little bite of burnt toast and roasted coffee. This is Roast Malt. Then see if you can find it in any of our other beers. I assure you, it’s in there more than you would think.) There are caramel malts, where the brewer converts as much of the carbohydrate in to fermentable sugars as possible, and then, well, caramelizes it inside the barley kernel. This renders all the enzymes useless, and lend little to no fermentable extract to be utilized, but it does make for a wonderfully rich caramel, toast, brown sugar, and, oh yes, raisin flavor.
I could go on and on about the potential flavors you can get, depending upon climatic conditions during the barley's growth, the handling of the barley between the field and malt house, the pH of the water used to steep the grains, the temperature used for germination and for drying the malt. But I’ll save that conversation for the next time we share a pint. Hopefully it will be over a glass of our Whirlybird. A British IPA brewed with English Ale, Biscuit, Caramel, and Wheat Malts. Oh, and a tiny bit of roast? Maybe? This style is the OG hipster beer. Those handle-bar mustaches were not ironic, they helped capture the aromatics of the hops, further enhancing the drinkers whole sensory experience. They were the real deal. Just kidding, I think handlebar mustaches were most likely ironic back then too. Regardless, come try a pint of Whirlybird and see what malt can do for you. No need to remind you to bring the scrapbook, I’m sure.