Hops seem to be the star attraction in the craft beer ingredient show these days, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share the spotlight with another key player. Malted barley has been referred to as beer’s soul and backbone for good reason. It provides the sugars for yeast to create alcohol and CO2 in the fermentation process and is the primary source of beer’s color, flavor and feel.
Malt is created from cereal grain barley by sprouting or germinating, followed by kiln drying. This kilning process provides several different styles of malt — from extremely pale to black. Pale malts, known as base malts, provide the lion’s share of fermentable sugars, which yeast feeds on to produce ethanol in beer.
Malts other than base malts are commonly referred to as specialty malts, and they contribute color and flavor properties to beer even when used in small quantities. One of the most commonly used specialty malts is caramel or crystal malt. These malts lend caramel and toffee flavors to many different styles of beer. A few good examples of beers that rely heavily on caramel malts are Breckenridge Avalanche Ale, Odell 90 Shilling and New Belgium Fat Tire.
Wheat malt, which is actually malted wheat and not barley, is another specialty malt that deserves a place on the stage. Wheat malt offers up refreshing flavors of honey and granola. Wheat malt is a springboard for some of the most creative American craft beers. Try Breckenridge Agave Wheat, Bristol Beehive Honey Wheat or Avery White Rascal and you’ll see what I mean.
Chocolate malt contributes rich flavors of nuts, coffee and toasted cocoa. Some great examples are Breckenridge Vanilla Porter, Left Hand Milk Stout and Ska Steel Toe Stout.
It takes a cast of characters to build a great craft beer. Look for the attributes of each performer the next time you enjoy a pint.
Brewmaster Todd Usry has spent 22 years at Breckenridge Brewery. He completed his brewing studies at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago and his apprenticeship under a Canadian brewmaster. Usry oversees all brewing, packaging, distribution, sales and marketing at Brekenridge Brewery and is the president of the Colorado Brewer’s Guild.