Specialty Grains: Caramel and Roasted Malts

While many factors create a beer’s overall flavor, the specialty grains you choose for your brew may have the biggest impact on how it is perceived.

Most all-grain beer recipes consist of 80 to 90 percent generic pale two- or six-row malt. The rest of the grain bill consists of one or more specialty malts. Your choice of specialty malts will have a dramatic impact on the flavor, mouthfeel, and color of the beer. Specialty malts range in flavor from the light and sweet cara-pils to the astringent, carbon-like black malt.

When starting to use specialty grains, many brewers add them to  extract beers. Go sparingly. Many brewers use too much of a specialty malt in their early recipes. Try using only one specialty malt at a time at about 10 percent of the total grain bill of the recipe as a specialty malt. This will give you a taste of what the particular malt can do for a beer flavor profile.

Also, you’ll get a better feel for the quality of the specific malt if you use a single recipe for a fairly light beer with a low hopping rate. With each batch just vary the amount or type of specialty malt you’re adding.

Malt Categories

There are two major malt categories: caramelized malts and non-caramelized, or roasted, malts.

Caramelized malts are any malt that the maltster mashes in the kernel. In other words the maltster takes malt without crushing it and hydrates it. He then heats the water-malt mixture to a mash temperature of 140° to 160° F. This causes the malt enzymes to degrade the starch in the kernel, thus effectively mashing each individual kernel. Most but not all of the starch is degraded to small sugars.

The maltster then dries the mashed malt kernels at a given temperature from 180° to 350° F. This causes the sugars to crystallize. It also causes the sugars and nitrogen-based compounds (mostly amino acids and proteins) to combine to form melanoidins (brown to red color agents). The higher the drying temperature, the darker the color will be.

Malt kernels have an internal pH at this point of around 7. This pH is conducive to both caramelization and melanoidin formation. Both chemical reactions work better at higher pH.

Caramelization is the formation of brown color from the rearrangement of sugar molecules without the help of nitrogen-based molecules. Because caramelization occurs during this malting process, these malts are commonly referred to as caramel or caramelized malts. However, all caramelized malts have crystallized sugar in them, but not all crystallized malts have a large amount of caramelized products in them. Also, some specialty malts that are made without in-kernel mashing have caramelized products in them.

The other category of specialty malts is commonly referred to as roasted malts. It consists of any specialty malt that did not undergo an in-kernel mash process. Rather, its color is derived from heat generated during the kilning process. Examples of this type of malt range in color from Vienna malt (3° to 4° Lovibond) to roasted malt (500° to 600° Lovibond). Again, the major difference between the two styles of malt — caramelized and roasted — is that caramel malt has previously mashed sugar in it while the other specialty malts do not.

This differentiation is very important for the homebrewer who is not making all-malt mashes. Since caramel malts have all been pre-mashed they will, after being crushed, dissolve easily in an extraction brew. An infusion in 150° F water for 45 to 60 minutes will work well and requires minimal attention. If you are experimenting with specialty grains, you can try just crushing the grain, throwing it in a nylon stocking (preferably unused) or mesh bag, and letting the nylon bob around in the boiling wort for 10 minutes. You should add the caramel malt right at the start of the boil.

This method works well for most brewers, who do not worry about the additional tannins being leached into the boil; they will be coagulated out with the trub at the end of the boil.

Starting With Caramelized Malts

For brewers who are starting partial-grain brews, caramelized malts may be the best place to start. Caramelized malts come in a wide variety of flavors and colors and are extremely easy to use.

Here is a brief sampling of the caramelized malts:

Cara-pils: This malt is very light in color, 4° to 8° Lovibond. Its primary use is to improve head retention and also to give the beer better body and mouthfeel. Its flavor contributions are reported to add a sweet character to beer.

Cara-Vienne: This malt is slightly darker than cara-pils, 20° to 25° Lovibond. It is an ideal malt for making Vienna, Märzen, and Oktoberfest styles of beer. This malt also gives the beer a bigger mouthfeel and more body. It has a slight caramel, toasty aroma.

Cara-Munich: This malt is medium in color, 50° to 60° Lovibond. It is ideal for Oktoberfest styles of beer, along with being used in bocks, doppel­bocks, and maibocks. It does add body and mouthfeel. The flavor profile has been referred to as caramel-like with a nut finish.

Special B: This is a reasonably dark caramelized malt, 100° to 130° Lovibond. A little of this malt goes a long way for both color and flavor.
It will add some body and mouthfeel as well, but its most noteworthy character is its aroma. The aroma is a very strong, almost burnt caramel. Some people describe it as a sharp caramel aroma. Try playing with this malt in your recipes from pale ale to stouts.

Crystal malt: Crystal malts come in an array of color ratings, and they are very similar to the malts mentioned above. Crystal malts commonly have Lovibond ratings of 10 to 20, 30, 40, 45, 50 to 60, 80 to 90, 100 to 120, 130 to 150, and 160 to 180. They have flavor profiles that are similar to the cara-Vienne, cara-Munich, and Special B malts. The lighter in color the malts are, the less caramel aroma will be present. And as you get into the darker crystals, a nut-like aroma will be present. In the very darkest malts you may also perceive a toasty aroma. Go to your local homebrew store and smell all the malts so that you can get an idea of which ones you want to use.

All of these malts mentioned above were made into specialty malts by mashing them in the kernel. Therefore, they can all be used by extraction brewers without mashing them separately. Since their malting process was similar, they have certain characteristics in common that the non-caramelized malts don’t have.

All of the caramelized malts have some amount of residual starch in them. This can cause a haze in your beer but will likely not affect the flavor adversely. These malts also have a fair amount of unfermentable sugars in them, called dextrins. Some people believe that these dextrins give the beers made with these malts a sweeter flavor. However, scientific research does not always agree with this belief. You will have to make your own decision on this issue. The starch and dextrins do contribute to the mouthfeel and body of the beer. Finally, these malts all have more caramel aroma than the non-caramelized malts.

Non-caramelized Malts

Non-caramelized malts are not mashed in the kernel; you have to supply the mashing yourself. If you are an all-grain brewer, this is not a problem. Here, again, is a startling variety of malt.

Pilsen malt: This is a malt that is actually kilned at a lower temperature than normal malt. It was designed to make a light-colored beer without adding adjuncts, 1.4° to 1.8° Lovibond. This malt has a dry, crispy aroma to it. It is a good malt to use for your light-style beers. This malt has active enzymes, both proteases and amylases, in it.

Pale ale malt: This malt was designed to mimic the malt once used in England as the standard malt. It is kilned at a slightly higher temperature than the regular two- or six-row malt, but it still has enough enzyme activity to mash alone, or even with a little bit of other non-malted adjunct. The color is slightly darker than regular malt, 2.5° to 4° Lovibond. The aroma is stronger than regular malt and is a little bread-like.

Munich malt: This malt is darker than the pale ale malt, 5° to 7° Lovibond, and has a toasty aroma. It still contains some enzymatic activity but cannot be used at 100 percent of the malt bill. Use a grain bill of  50 to 75 percent Munich malt to make a Munich-style beer.

Aromatic malt: This malt is much darker than Munich malt, 17° to 21° Lovibond. It is kilned at a higher temperature, therefore it has less enzymatic power. It cannot convert a mash on its own. The aroma of this malt can be described as supercharged malt.

Biscuit malt: This malt was designed to have a cracker/bread-like aroma. It is slightly darker than the aromatic malt, 23° to 26° Lovibond. It is very limited in enzymatic activity.

Chocolate malt: This malt is kilned at a high temperature. It contains no enzymatic activity. Its color is usually 350° to 450° Lovibond. The aroma is somewhat like a burnt, non-sweet chocolate. This malt is an excellent adjunct for porters and stouts.

Black malt: This is one of the darkest malts you can find, 500° to 600° Lovibond or more. It is primarily used for making stouts and other dark beers. This malt imparts a roasted, astringent flavor to the beer. It will also lower your mash pH.

Roasted barley: While this is not a malt product, it is used quite extensively and deserves mention. It has a flavor that is similar to that of black malt but is a little bit more astringent. Its color rating is 450° to 600°-plus Lovibond.

Other Grains

There is one other group that might be included in your grain bill: non-barley malts and unmalted grains. The other major grains that are used are wheat, malted and unmalted; rice; corn; rye; oats; and to a lesser degree millet and sorghum.

Malted wheat can be used very much like malted barley. Many recipes for hefe-weizen-style beers use up to 60 percent malted wheat. Both malted and unmalted wheat give a dryer, more thirst-quenching flavor while seeming to be a bit more clingy on the tongue.

Both rice and corn are used to lighten the color of a beer and also reduce the cost of mass-produced beer. Rice can be used in reasonably high concentrations, 30 percent or more, without causing significant flavor changes. The major change is a lightening of the original flavor, possibly along with a banana-like flavor (increased amyl acetate production by the yeast).

Corn should be used a little more sparingly as it tends to add flavor to the beer in concentrations of 25 percent or more. The beers tend to have more fusel-alcohol (higher-alcohol) flavors (that could include medicinal flavors from the phenolic alcohols, a subtype of higher alcohol).

Rye gives a flavor similar to wheat but even dryer.

Oats are a favorite of oatmeal stout makers. The stouts made with about 10 percent oats tend to have a sweeter, smoother flavor. However, keep in mind that oats do contain more oil than the rest of the grains.

This is not a complete list of all the specialty malts. These are some of the most common malts. As a general rule, don’t go crazy with specialty malts. For the most part you should be able to create the desired result in a recipe with four or fewer specialty malts.

Non-caramelized malts can be used in the same way as caramelized malts but, because they are not already mashed, will not yield as much fermentable sugar if added at the boil stage. The lighter ones, however, will add starch to the wort, which can cause cloudy beer.

If you want to explore non-caramelized specialty malts, with the exception of those used in porters, stouts, and other dark beers, it may be best to make the jump to all-grain brewing.

Now that you have been introduced to the hows and whys of specialty malts, think of the beer as your canvas and the malts as your paint set, only this paint set affects your eyes, nose, and mouth. Go forth and paint a beautiful picture.

Baseline beers

To enhance your brewing experience, brew some experimental batches with different caramelized malts. The best thing about the experiments, of course, is that you get to drink the results.

Note: It’s really important to use the palest possible malt extract as the base; it’s very difficult to get a really pale extract beer. But this will give you a much better baseline for observing the use of the caramel and roasted malts, and most closely approximate the use of real pale malts in an all-grain brew.

All the beers have this base in common:

Base Ingredients
• 4 lbs. extra light liquid malt extract
• 3 lbs. extra light dry malt extract
• 2.5 oz. Northern Brewer or Cascade hops (about 7% alpha acid), for 75 min.
• 1 oz. Cascade, Goldings, or Mt. Hood hops at end-boil
• 1 qt. yeast starter of vigorous ale strain (such as Wyeast 1056)

For All Beers

Crush the grains, and infuse them in 1 gal. water at 150° F for 45 to 60 minutes. Rinse the grains, reserving all liquid, and add the malt extract (do not turn on the burner under the kettle until all extract is well dissolved). Bring volume to 2.5-3 gals., boil for 15 minutes, and add 2.5 oz. hops. Boil 75 more minutes, adding 1 oz. hops at end-boil. Cool wort as quickly as possible, adding it to enough pre-boiled cold water to produce 5 gals. When temperature of wort has dropped to 70° F, pitch yeast starter.  Ferment out and follow normal secondary fermentation and bottling procedures.

#1 – Golden Ale
Add 1 lb. Belgian cara-pils or British carastan malt to the base.

#2 – Pale Ale
Add 1 lb. Belgian cara-Vienne or British crystal or American crystal to the base.

#3 – Richer Pale Ale
Add as for #2, but in addition, add 2 oz. British black malt.

#4 – Even Richer Pale Ale
Add as for #2, but in addition, add 2 oz. Belgian Special B malt.

#5 – Porter
Add as for #2, but in addition, add 5 oz. chocolate malt.