Beer is made from four simple ingredients water, hops, yeast and of course malt. All these ingredients work together to produce the world’s favorite alcoholic beverage. However, I would happily bet that if you ask a typical consumer what beer is made of the reply will invariably focus on hops. Whereas the truth is that if it wasn’t for malt, beer simply would not be beer.
Perhaps this is a good time to explain why we have written an article title what is malt? A few years ago the marketing department of a well known malting company wanted to promote, with the wider general public, the important uses of malt in everyday food and drink. So they conducted a very simple piece of consumer research where they asked members of the public what malt was. One of the respondents stated that it was what his cat did in the summer. Sadly this nicely illustrates the point that a large majority of consumers do not know what malt is or what it can be used for. What the respondent in our study was referring to was molt, which is indeed when a cat sheds its fur in the summer, rather than malt the key ingredient in the brewing of beer. For obvious reasons and for the purpose of this article we will be discussing malt and malting rather than a molting cat.
So what is malt? Malt is any grain that has been steeped, germinated and kilned and can be made from grains such as wheat and rye although the majority of malt produced in the world is derived from barley. Grains such as barley are essential for brewing because they are the source of simple sugars that the yeast utilize during fermentation to produce alcohol. If we look at a grain of barley it essentially consists of an embryo, the “living” part of the grain, attached to a neatly packaged source of starch called the endosperm. It is the starch contained within the endosperm that interests brewers. For the grain the starch contained in the endosperm can be viewed as a source of stored energy. When the grain is planted in the ground, and all the conditions are right, the barley grain begins to germinate, that is it starts to grow from a seed into a plant. However to do this it needs energy to drive the biochemical reactions by which it can start to grow the roots and shoots that will develop into the mature plant. Once the plant has got leaves photosynthesis takes over and the plant is no longer dependent upon the energy store that was present in the initial grain. That source of stored energy is the starch contained in the endosperm. Therefore when germination begins the grain starts to convert the starch into simple sugars such as glucose which via some complex biochemical reactions provides the developing grain with sufficient energy to allow plant growth. Interestingly that is why grains have become such an important part of the human diet as a source of starch that can be converted into energy by the cells in our body.
So why not just use the raw barley grain in brewing? The simple fact is that yeast is not very good at converting starch into sugars quickly so humans, clever as we are, have developed over thousands of years the malting and brewing processes, which are designed to break down the starch into sugar that yeast can then ferment into alcohol. The first part of the process, malting, is therefore the controlled germination of barley to initiate the breakdown of starch. As we will see in the next part of this article series germination is a fascinating biochemical process with huge benefits to the beer drinking public!