Roasted Malts: Tips from the Pros

Two 2020 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) medalists share their preferences and techniques for brewing with roasted malts.

Jeff Young, Co-Founder/Brewmaster of Shoe Tree Brewing Co. in Carson City, Nevada

For chocolate flavor we find chocolate rye gives us the best results and we use it in almost every one of our dark beers. We prefer chocolate rye and chocolate wheat over a classic chocolate malt from barley; we find they come off less acidic and with less of a harsh bitter aftertaste. We rely on a classic roasted barley for our coffee flavor and aroma. To balance out the bitterness that comes from roasted barley we like to use some Carafa® Special III that has been “debittered” but still adds a nice espresso aroma.  

We are careful not to overdo it with chocolate malts — and especially chocolate malt from barley. We like to keep these malts under 5% even in our chocolate beers. When we want over-the-top chocolate flavor in our beers we use Cholaca (liquid cacao nibs) and a nice dark cocoa powder.

Even though the roasted malts may dominate the flavor profile, base malts play a significant role considering they make up 60–80% of the grain bill. High-quality base malt can mean the difference between a good beer and a great beer. We use a high-quality 2-row barley or Pilsner malt as the base malt in all our beers across the board. 

We are lucky to have fairly alkaline water in Carson City, Nevada that requires us to do very little in water treatments unless we are trying to
recreate a specific region’s water profile. For our Stoutacus Imperial Stout (2020 GABF bronze medal winner), we try to match Dublin’s water profile, which is even more alkaline helping to combat the acidity of the dark malts. We deploy chalk, calcium chloride (CaCl2), gypsum, baking soda, and even sea salt to achieve this. The ratio of these salt additions is based on our local water profile. 

I think you can use the bitterness that sulfates bring to help balance out residual sugars, especially in high-ABV dark beers. We like to use CaCl2 in higher quantities in our dark beers to help get the calcium level up to 120 ppm or higher. Recently we have been experimenting with the addition of sea salt (NaCl) to allow us to use more roasted malts for their flavor but soften the bitterness and astringency dark malts can bring.

For a better understanding of how we often layer roasted malts, we can take a look at our Coco Burrito Porter (2020 GABF gold medal winner) recipe. The beer is modeled after a choco taco, which is vanilla ice cream in a waffle cone, dipped in chocolate, and topped with peanuts. Here is an overview of the dark malts in this recipe: 

• Chocolate rye (2.25%) 

• Chocolate wheat (2.25%) 

• Special B (2.25%)

• Crystal malt (77 °L) (4.5%) 

• Carafa® Special III (1.5%) 

• Simpsons Extra Dark (2.5%)

The goal of the malt bill was to create a rich depth of flavor without being too bitter. We wanted a very smooth porter. We use the chocolate rye and wheat to accentuate the cacao nibs and cocoa powder. Special B, crystal 77, and Simpsons Extra Dark were used to help build body, give biscuit flavor, and leave a little residual sweetness to mimic the waffle cone. Carafa® Special III gives the classic coffee profile in a porter. We focused on getting the chocolate and waffle cone flavors from the malt bill knowing that the vanilla and peanuts would come across very strong in a beer. It is rounded off with the use of lactose to provide a back sweetness to help balance out the bitterness from the dark malts. Although we have built these layers of flavors, we also made sure you know you’re enjoying a porter.

Ben Mullett, Head Brewer for Skipping Rock Beer Co. in Staunton, Virginia

We use a bunch of roasted malts including chocolate, black, and roasted barley, but I prefer the debittered Carafa® Special malts. I also like to add a bit of Special B and CaraAroma® to add complexity in my darker beers. The grains you choose are up to you and the style you’re trying to brew. Much like cooking, it’s all about knowing what flavors and intensities of flavors you’re aiming for. I would caution against using more than 10% roasted grains for most beer styles. Above this you will bring out more acrid, burnt, and bitter flavors.

We are lucky enough with our water in Staunton, Virginia to not have to adjust too much, but if needed a little sodium bicarbonate can help keep your pH from dipping too low due to the roasted malts. Regarding our use of salts, I’d say in something like a dry stout the sulfates would help accentuate that dryness. On the other side of things a bit of calcium chloride in the kettle will promote fullness in the mouthfeel of the beer. I have not done this myself, but have heard of others who will add the roasted or darker cara malts later in the mash to try to add color without excessive roasted flavor or to keep an optimal mash pH. However, I cannot speak to their success or not.

I think that most of the flavors you get from base malts in these darker beer styles are overshadowed by the strong flavors of the roasted malts. That said, I still try to use base malts that are traditional to any style that I am brewing. 

The base of our Baltic Porter (gold medal-winner in the 2020 GABF) is made up of Pilsner and Munich malts. I use a blend of chocolate, black, and Carafa® Special grains that make up a total of 8% of the grist. I use an 18% mix of dark crystal and Special B to round out those roasted flavors and add complexity. That beer is then fermented with White Labs WLP830 (German Lager) yeast and lagered for at least eight weeks. 

Issue: January-February 2021