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Dark Secrets of Roasted Grains

There are a lot of beer styles that call for some form of a roasted grain. Understanding the differences between them helps brewers decide which they should use for a recipe and at what proportions. The purpose of this piece is to run through key characteristics of several of the more common roasted grains and how they may be applied in different beer styles.

Pale Chocolate & Coffee Malts (180–260 °L)

While the two malts are distinct, they are close enough that I will group these two together. Coffee malt has a more city roast coffee aroma to it while pale chocolate malt is a bit more nutty/full city roast coffee/chocolate aroma. The subtleties can be lost in bigger, more robust beers, but can be more pronounced in your standard porter, mild, or brown ale. You can go upwards of 20% of the fermentables to really emphasize these characteristics in a dark porter or stout but in high percentages, I would recommend this grain gets mashed. 10% or less would be my recommendation for more restrained styles. These can add a layer of complexity not found in darker roasts.

Chocolate Malts (325–450 °L)

Dissecting this category is best done by the maltster’s origin. North American chocolate malts in general clock in around 350 °L, British chocolate malts are generally in the low 400 °L range, while Continental chocolate malts span a broad range. Again, these are generalities, but chocolate malts bring a bit more Vienna- to French-roasted coffee and dark chocolate aromas and character to beers made with them. You can get some burnt toast type flavors and smoky character from these grains when using in higher percentages. Generally I advise going up to roughly 10% of the grain bill when using chocolate malts, although that can be extended for imperial stouts. I love an American porter that layers pale chocolate with chocolate malt and a hint of crystal malt to it. This combination of malts adds a flavor profile that is surprisingly similar to semi-sweet, dark chocolate.

Black Malt (450–600 °L)

Now we get into the espresso, ashy, burnt toast realm of roasted malts, but these characteristics can be controlled to the brewer’s liking. These malts are brought nearly to the point of combustion before quenching and cooling and can bring a red hue to a beer if used in low percentages. If used at the other end of the spectrum, they can produce a beer darker than a steer’s tookus on a moonless prairie night. They can also be a bit more acrid, so coupling with or replacing with a dehusked (or huskless) roasted grain may be beneficial if you’re looking for a smoother dark beer. Stouts and imperial stouts will mostly benefit from some black malt in the mix to give a roasted, espresso-like character to those styles. But one thing of note is that these grains lose aromatics when compared to chocolate malts. So for more aromatic porters and stouts, layering of the roasted grains is something I recommend for more coffee-chocolate aroma. Generally I recommend 1–2% of the grain bill for red ales and upwards of 10% of the grain bill for robust Russian imperial stouts.

Roasted Barley (300–600 °L)

Roasted barley is unmalted and does provide a different profile than its malted cousins. Roasted barley does come in a broad range of color and I highly recommend that you inquire from your supplier about the color rating of the roasted barley before you purchase. Briess produces a roasted barley roasted to 300 °L and therefore is more in line with your chocolate malts. The darker range of 450–600 °L are more like black malts. Roasted barley imparts a slightly drier, more bitter, and astringent flavor profile than the roasted malts. While this may not sound like an appealing sales pitch for using roasted barley, it is often exactly the profile brewers look for when building their dry stout or Russian imperial stout recipes.

Dehusked Roasted Grains

This is another broad class of grains I will lump into one category considering the number of grains that are dehusked and roasted until dark brown to black in color. Dehusked, huskless, and pearled malts all mean that these grains will be less bitter and astringent than their husked counterparts. This can be beneficial in some instances, but may not provide the proper character you’re looking for in more robust renditions. Schwarzbiers, dessert stouts, and winter warmers are a few styles for which a brewer may opt for huskless roasted grains.

Dehusked, huskless, and pearled malts all mean that these grains will be less bitter and astringent than their husked counterparts.

Wheat malt comes huskless so any darkly roasted wheat will be found in this category. Roasted wheat malt is noted to provide a slightly sweeter characteristic when compared to dehusked barley malt and I would say 10% would be the maximum usage rate. Chocolate rye malt is also huskless and often is roasted to a color of around 250 °L, which provides a toast level between pale chocolate malt and chocolate malt. It has a unique roast character and is recommended up to 5% of the grain bill. Dehusked or debittered or Carafa® Special malts and grains all are similar to chocolate or black malts, just with smoother, less roast and/or bitter character. Pearled black malt is similar to the dehusked varieties as well and these can be used upwards of 10% for truly jet-black stouts with a smoother finish.