Grain: How It Makes Your Beer

January 20, 2016

Grain: How It Makes Your Beer

Grain is the essence of beer brewing –as grapes are to wine, grain is to beer- and of all the available grains barley is the one that lends itself best toward beer making; hence it being the most popular. This is how we began explaining grain in our last article, and, surprise surprise, this still stands true! Today we are going to expand on what we told you last time and uncover how grains make your beer explaining what different grains do to your beer and, without delving into too much detail, how the stuff of cereals is treated so that it can affect your beer, and you, the way it does.

We told you last time that barley is the most widely used grain in beer making, however “most widely used” may have been a small understatement because barley is in fact used in every beer. Sure there may be a few that don’t fall in line here but that number is too small to matter (barley is even an ingredient in famous German and Belgian wheat beers).  Therefore, in this article, we are going to be explaining everything in terms of barley.

Before the brewing process is even being thought about the barley first needs to go through the malting process. Here moisture is used to stimulate the natural growth of the grains before being stopped (dried), in a very timely manner, by the maltsters- people that malt. The end product is either called malted barley or just plain malt.  Before this is ready for the brewing process it is split into smaller batches to be roasted or kilned; different processes, times and temperatures are used for producing different types of malt.  This whole process is usually undertaken by professional maltsters, whom brewers then purchase their malts from; megabreweries can be exceptions to this rule because, to control costs and the process itself they will often malt in-house. Once malted and roasted the barley is then milled and finally ready to make beer with.

“Malty” is a probably a term you’ve probably heard used to define the way a beer tastes and this taste is one of a malty richness and sweetness; remember malt is the ingredient in beer that provides all those sweet sugars for the yeast to feed off. “Roasty” or “toasty” are also terms of flavour that may have passed your ears, and they are used to describe flavours given off by those carefully roasted barley grains. Other often noted flavours provided by malts are: coffee, chocolate, biscuit and caramel; these flavours mainly come from “specialty malts” which are long roasted until they become crystallised (crystal malt), charred (black malt) or deeply browned (chocolate malt).

Everything in beer affects the flavour, however, the malt used is the ingredient that has the most influence over the colour of the final beverage, light grains, or malts, make for lighter beers whilst darker ones (like those mentioned above), make for darker beers, simple really! This in turn helps us, as drinkers, to know what style of beer we’re drinking.

So for beer you firstly use what is called a base malt -there are a few varieties of these but we won’t delve into them- and this will hold the highest percentage of malt in your mix. From this base there are a large variety of malts that you can choose to add, as well as other grains, to your mix; your choices here will have a very large impact on the final product. Sometimes mega breweries will add other grains in order to cut costs and create more volumes, when grains are added in such a way (corn and rice are the main ones) they are called adjuncts; because they’re not there to do anything to the beer for the consumer, only for the producer.

This is a process very much frowned upon in craft and homebrew circles. Nowadays, after standing proudly upon the 100% barley cart for a long long while, craft brewers are beginning to add other varieties of grains, including corn and rice, into their brews. However they are not undertaking this for a gain in costs or production quantity. Instead, they are using these grains to enhance the flavours of the barley and the complexity of the beer; these entrepreneurs are trying to create something new, interesting and unique. Here is a list of other grains that can be added to beer and what they can do to the brew. Of course many have been being used for centuries however experimentation never stops, so next time you find one of these on the label of your beer see if you can notice the difference in the flavour:

  • Unmalted Barley: More head retention, rich grainy character however it can make the beer appear hazy. (Probably won’t be noted as a separate ingredient)
  • Corn: Stabilises the flavours and sweetness of the brew, also adds smoothness.
  • Oats: Creamier and full-bodied mouthfeel.
  • Rice: Has very little taste, however it lightens the body and adds a dry tinge to the profile.
  • Rye: Sharpens the flavours of the barley and enhances the complexity, also adding a crispness and, sometimes, some subtle spice notes.
  • Wheat: Thicker, foamier, longer lasting head with a fuller body and mouthfeel. Can also add tartness.

We hope that that kept you entertained and intrigued and keen for more! There are, obviously, a lot more technical element to grains involvement in beer but we waived them for the purpose of keeping this article short, sweet and informative. Soon we shall be delving into another ingredient of beer, gaining and giving a deeper understanding of how it works for your brew.