Specific specialty grains
There seems to be a lot of different specialty grains that folks add to their recipes for things like head retention, creaminess, mouthfeel, etc. Crystal, Carapils, Caravienne, Caramunich, Carafoam, flaked barley and the list goes on. Why are there so many and does one really stand out for you when you are brewing a beer?
I have enough years in my rearview mirror that claiming part of my anonymous past is probably OK. When I was in graduate school at the University of California, Davis, I was one of a handful of participants in a taste panel for a major magazine that rates products and publishes the reviews. Our task was to flavor profile a fairly wide range of beers available in the United States. The methodology used in this panel is called Quantitative Descriptive Analysis (QDA for short) and the objective is to evaluate a food product using an agreed upon lexicon of flavor descriptors using a point scale. For example, a descriptor for beer is “bitter” and in a QDA panel this descriptor is given a numerical value depending on its intensity. If you are wondering if we mixed up an answer and question, we didn’t. I’ll get to malt in a bit.
The QDA panel I was on had over 40 descriptors in our vocabulary. Over the course of several months we were presented nameless samples of beer to evaluate. The panel leader was Dr. Jean-Xavier “JX” Guinard. JX is a really cool guy from France who has a varied background in beer, food and wine research and wrote the Classic Beer Styles “Lambic” book for Brewers Publications. When I was entering Davis in 1991, JX was leaving for Penn State and later returned as I was completing my degree. Luckily for me and the other graduate students, JX left some of his experimental Lambics in the lab beer refrigerator (cold room) and we tasted some of these gems when time permitted. In any case, JX insisted on conducting this panel in a very rigid and non-biased way (which is the best way to conduct a sensory panel). We tasted the same beers randomly during the study and JX monitored the consistency of the panel; we were a very well-trained group of “expert” judges and our consistency was excellent.
This magazine wanted us to rank the beers in addition to simply describing them because descriptions do not sell magazines. JX was extremely hesitant to allow his expert panel to commit the ultimate sensory crime, which is intermingling a QDA (read “expert”) panel with a preference (read “consumer”) panel. At the end of the day, we were persuaded to wear both hats and I think we did a pretty good job at separating our dual roles.
Your question beckons me to walk that path once again, but age and experience has given me the wisdom not to take the bait! There are indeed many, many different malts available to brewers. And many of these malts have very similar (if not the same) names. Chocolate malt, black malt, wheat malt, crystal 60, and all of the names you listed in your question. Many beers also have the same names. Pale ale, stout, doppelbock, hefeweizen; just stick a brewery name in front of any of these styles and I am sure most homebrewers can create a list of at least 30 different beers. And all 30 of these beers are truly different beers brewed by different brewers with different ideas about what and why they do what they do. The selection of malt available to brewers is really no different than the selection of beers available to the beer consumer.
Part of my job includes going to annual brewing meetings that feature trade shows. I love walking around the tradeshow floor, checking out the various tools of the trade. Part of this journey includes chewing malt samples and reading the specs accompanying them. I evaluate the flavor, look at the size of the grain, read the specs that detail color, enzyme content, viscosity, protein content, degree of modification, etc. and imagine how the malt (or other grain) may fit into my ideas for future brews.
Walking into a grocery store offers the same abstract trip as walking a trade show floor. Look at the selection, read the labels, evaluate the firmness, color and overall appearance of the various ingredients and imagine how they could be married into dinner. Without a varied selection we would have limited variety in food. And the same is true with malt (and hop) selection in brewing. I do not have a favorite maltster or type of special malt. Rather I seek the malt that I believe, based upon available information, will serve my brewing needs.
I remember editing articles submitted by Horst Dornbusch for his style column and wondering about his recommendations about using Weyermann malt in just about any beer style. I figured since there are many great malts out on the market, why limit the recommendation to just one company? But on the other hand, Horst knew that he could get a certain color, aroma, taste or foam contribution from Weyermann malt and that was what he used in his brewing recipes. The same outcome would surely not be achieved by using malt produced from another maltster, such as Briess, Crisp, Great Western, Hugh Baird or Dingemans. Knowing ingredients, even if you have detailed knowledge of only a handful, is extremely important when selecting a particular grain to perform a certain task.
I know that I must bring this answer to a close for fear of standing on my soapbox for too long. The answer to your question “does one [malt] really stand out” above others is a resounding NO! It depends on what you wish to accomplish in the brewhouse. The malt requirements for Budweiser are most certainly different than those for Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel. I encourage all brewers to read recipes as a general guide. When it comes to malt selection, I certainly heed the advice of others but also follow my own path. If I read a recipe and envision a variation with a change in malts, I do not hesitate to make the alternation. What this process requires, however, is a working knowledge of the different malts on the market. And to reiterate one of my common themes, I offer my opinion that knowledge requires experimentation.
There is a really wide selection of malts on the market and the reason for this is that brewers require a great variety of great malts to brew a great variety of great beers. The only way to really know the best malt for your particular need is do your research by chewing, reading malting specs, trying different malts, reading about different malts and then using this body of knowledge (or speculation) to make a choice that hopefully makes your abstracted beer a reality. By the way, our panel selected Old Milwaukee as the best domestic lager and that beer has won more than a few medals at the Great American Beer Festival. I’m not sure what my point is, but I know that every expert opinion has an equally persuasive alternate opinion. Use the malt that makes your face smile and taste buds tingle!