A few years ago I saw some results from a research project carried out at Campden BRi, the brewing research organisation based in Surrey. The research looked at the impact of different barley varieties on beer. In the project 8 barley varieties were malted and used to brew 8 identical beers under as near as possible controlled conditions. The research team measured the brewing performance and then subjected each beer, brewed from a single barley variety, to chemical and flavour analysis to see if there were any differences. In terms of brewhouse performance all of the malts were good but some varieties were marginally better than others. However, perhaps more interesting was that there were some very subtle differences perceived by the sensory panel, which conducted the flavour analysis, and these differences were put down to the impact of the barley variety used to brew the beer.
This was a very in-depth piece of research, casting a highly critical eye over the influence of malt on brewhouse performance and final beer quality. In general, it could be argued, brewers do not scrutinise their malt in such detail but, if we are honest, it is surprising how little regard we pay to the malt that we use to brew our beer. I suspect many of us are only interested in whether we achieve the correct wort gravity from the malt that we use and nothing else. The question therefore arises should we be more critical of the malt that we use?
It is perhaps interesting to note that commercial brewers are mixed in terms of their attitude to malt. There are some brewers who don’t mind what barley is used to produce their malt. As long as it is an approved malting variety and it meets their performance specification then they are not fussy. You can contrast this with other brewers who are extremely fussy about the malt that they use, specifying the variety and in certain circumstances the exact field that the barley was grown in! For example Roger Ryman, Head Brewer at St Austells Brewery, has said that he will only use malt if it is malted from Maris Otter barley. He even goes as far as to state that he can tell, from just walking into the brewhouse, whether a brewer is using Maris Otter or not. The reverence paid to the grain, variety, growing conditions etc verges on the fanaticism of “Terroir” in wine production but, let’s face it, taste the St Austell beers and you have to say Mr Ryman might be onto something!
So should we as home brewers be more discerning about the malt that we use. Certainly some great results can be gained by being fussier. Let me give you an example, when was the last time you tasted your malt? You wouldn’t be alone in admitting never but you can tell a lot about the quality of your malt by its taste, and remember some of those flavour notes present in the malt will carry through to your beer. Next time you are buying malt give it a taste. Dependent upon the malt type it should have a subtle sweet, grainy and green taste. If you are wondering what is meant by “green” think of bean sprouts and mange toute. There should be no harsh or bitter/sour notes. You might get an odd look from your home brew retailer but we recommend giving it a go. Over time you will become more proficient at recognising when something is not quite right about the malt, you can then decide whether to brew with it or not.
We will now end this brief article with a cautionary tale about a brewer who didn’t routinely taste their malt before using it to brew. The brewer had a fermenter full of beer that had an odd diesel-like flavour. Upon investigation the malt that was used to brew the beer was found to have been contaminated with diesel and that off-flavour carried through into the final beer. Unfortunately the entire fermenter had to be thrown away, a good argument for tasting the malt perhaps? Get going now and start to taste your malt and make better home brewed beer.