How you should be choosing your malt

The Brewers Association has said that craft malt should be ‘distinctive and flavourful’. Crisp Malt Sales Manager Colin Johnston explains how brewers should use all their senses to pick malts

The Brewers Association has said that craft malt should be ‘distinctive and flavourful’. Crisp Malt Sales Manager Colin Johnston explains how brewers should use all their senses to pick malts.

You get to chat to a lot of brewers when your background is brewing, your passion is beer – and you work for a malt company. You get to meet the people whose beers you’ve been savouring and admiring ever since you were (almost) old enough to drink. And you get to offer advice to those bravely starting up breweries having never monitored a mash in their lives.

Sometimes, your encounters leave a lasting impression. It was like that with Brooklyn Brewmaster, Garrett Oliver. His words at a tasting I was at chimed perfectly with my belief. He said outstanding craft beers are made by people who have a singular vision about the end product; a passion for flavour; and a commitment to ingredients they are fiercely proud of using.

What should ‘craft malt’ be?
A recent article published by the technical committee of the Brewers’ Association in the USA outlined the ideal ‘craft malt’. It specified:

• low free amino nitrogen (around 150) for optimal fermentation
• lower total protein/ nitrogen (less than 1.65%) to promote stability and clarity
• lower diastatic power (around 60) to allow for ideal mashing conditions
• lower Kolbach index or soluble nitrogen ratio as we know it (35-42).

In the UK, we’re blessed with some of the finest barley-growing land in the world. North Norfolk in particular reigns supreme, with its textbook terroir – a combination of light soil structure, sunny maritime weather and gentle sea breezes. The region’s malt meets all the BA craft malt specifications. All the measures are available in your certificate of analysis.

It’s no coincidence that Crisp has been malting in North Norfolk since 1884. The region’s terroir is perfect for growing malting barley. It is here where most of the country’s Maris Otter is grown, and where Chevallier Heritage Malt has been so successfully revived.

But what of the BA’s other requirement; that craft malt should be distinctive and flavourful? How is this assured by maltsters – and how do brewers make their own assessments?

Use all your senses
Well at Crisp we’re long-time advocates of organoleptic activity – that is, using the senses. Maltsters look at, touch, break, smell and taste grain samples from beginning to the end of the malting process. Brewers can apply and develop their beer sensory capabilities to cover malt examination and tasting.

Tasty treats
Delegates at the Craft Brewers Conference in the US chew their way through countless handfuls of Maris Otter, Chevallier Heritage malt, Caramalt – and a panoply of malted and unmalted cereals. The crunch test allows them to work out taste characteristics and is a good way of telling if the malt is fresh, well modified (friable) and free from any obvious off-flavours. Over time you can develop your skills to be able to identify trueness-to-type as well as subtle differences between similar-looking malts.

A careful visual inspection tells you whether whole malt is consistently sized, kernels unbroken and husks intact. You can check whether it’s free from dust, stones and stalks and get an idea of whether it’s been treated well in malting, packaging and transportation.

Steep of faith
But to truly gauge the flavour contribution to the beer, we advocate following the ‘hot steep method’ that we use to assess all our malts for flavour consistency. It was developed by Briess and the American Society of Brewing Chemists and can be found online. It involves grinding a small malt sample and combining with 65-degree hot water for 15 minutes for the malt to saccharify and the flavour compounds to be released. By filtering this mash, the wort can be tasted and an assessment made. You can also do mini mashes of your malt mill with different contributions of speciality malt to understand how they combine and affect each other.

Discover malt
For years brewers have been stuffing their heads into bags of hops and waxing lyrical about the aromas and qualities of their consignments. Gradually, I’m witnessing more brewers interrogating their malt intake with similar levels of care.

Commoditisation of malt and bland beers go hand in hand. Equally, utter respect for, and an insatiable curiosity about, all ingredients are the pathway to outstanding, flavoursome beers. It’s not a question of a one-off decision. As with hops, every batch of malt that crosses the threshold of your brewery doors should be a source of anticipation, interest and excitement.

Not all barleys are created equal, and neither are all malts. Get touching, smelling, breaking, tasting – and steeping – to better understand your core ingredient and explore the wonderful world of malt flavour. It is far wider than most people imagine.