Specialty Grains: Tips from the Pros

Brewer:  Tim Schwartz
Brewery:  Bitter End Brewing, Austin, Texas
Years of Experience:  Two
Education: Five years homebrewing
House Beers: EZ Wheat, Bitter End Bitter, Aberdeen Amber, Austin Pale Ale, Hammerhead Porter, and Sledgehammer Stout

The first consideration when using specialty grains is figuring out what type of beer you want. We know what our brewhouse efficiency is, so we can calculate how much grain we’re going to need to hit a particular gravity. Then we determine what color we want. You also have to ask yourself if you want your beer on the malty side or the hoppy side.

One of the best things homebrewers can do is look at books for different  beer styles. Brewing handbooks can give you traditional percentages of specialty grains for certain styles. You might want to try the traditional recipe, then start experimenting to see what you like. That’s one of the fun things about homebrewing, making something unique.

For example the percentage of crystal malt and specialty grains we use in our Bitter End Bitter is a lot higher than in a traditional English ESB. We use a blend of the five crystal malts, which is a little unusual. Quite often you’re using one or two crystal malts. Using five gives it a little more depth and complexity, because different shades of the crystal malt contribute slightly different flavors, some sweeter, some nuttier. The really dark crystal adds a slight raisin flavor. We were going for a fairly big malt profile on this beer, even though we put a lot of English hops in it.

It is dark copper. English bitters have a wide range of colors, from golden to very dark amber. So a variety of colors fall into the traditional category.

The crystal malts we use are 13° Lovibond carastan, 30° Lovibond cara,  55° Lovibond crystal, 75° Lovibond crystal, and 120° Lovibond crystal. The majority is 55° Lovibond crystal, about 6 percent of the grist. If you were homebrewing the Bitter End Bitter, you’d use 2 pounds of specialty grains: 10 or 11 ounces of 55° Lovibond crystal, 6 ounces each of 13° cara, 30° cara, and 75° Lovibond crystal; and two to three ounces of the 120° Lovibond crystal. This is an all-grain recipe. But if you’re a homebrewer making an amber beer, you don’t necessarily need to brew with amber malt extract. It’s better to start off with the lightest extract you can and build the recipe up using specialty grains. It gives you more control over the process, and it’s more individualistic. Your beer won’t taste like everyone else’s, because you’re picking out your own specialty grains for flavor and color.

One of our most unique recipes is the Sledgehammer Express. It is an espresso version of our Sledgehammer Stout. It has eight pounds of espresso beans in a 200-gallon batch. We wanted some nice roasted notes, which are traditional in a stout, so we used chocolate malt, a pretty good amount of roasted barley, and a little black patent malt to get an opaque character and dry roastiness. We also put in a lot more crystal malt than we do in our stout because we needed to balance the roastiness and the dryness of the coffee flavor with a little sweetness and bring up the body. Whenever you increase the percent of crystal, you get more body and more unfermentable dextrins in beer. This adds to the mouthfeel.

That’s another thing you need to think about when homebrewing. The more specialty grains that you’re adding, the higher your finishing gravity is going to be, because specialty grains have sugars that aren’t going to be fully converted.

When using specialty grains, steep them as the water comes to a boil; don’t boil them. If you do, the grains will leach out tannins that will give harsh, astringent flavors to your beer. When you get into all-grain brewing, it’s easy to make the mistake of mashing with too high a percent of specialty grains that don’t have the kind of enzymatic content that you normally get from two-row or base malt. When mashing in all-grain recipes, you have enzymes converting carbohydrates into sugars. So if you do all-grain and use a very high percent of specialty grains that don’t have requisite enzymes, you’ll end up with a lot of starches or carbohydrates that weren’t converted to sugars.

Brewers who partial mash should include some two-row so the enzymes are in there. If you use specialty grains such as Munich or Vienna malts, it’s better to do a mashing process on them. The sugars in crystal malts are readily available to go into solution, because crystal malts have undergone a sort of mash in their production. Munich and Vienna malts, however, do much better with mashing even if it’s short — 10- to 15-minute rests around 150° F or so — because they need to go through the conversion process more than crystal or roasted barley and black patent malt.

Another important tip is the more involved you are in the process —  the more specialty grains you use — the more control you have over your outcome.

The Tips

• Don’t rigidly match your malt extract to the style you are attempting. It’s better to start with the lightest extract and build up the recipe using specialty grains.

• Start with the amounts given in a recipe for a traditional style and then experiment until you find variations you like and can call your own.

• Never boil grains. Steep them as the water comes to a boil. When boiled, grains leach tannins and could ruin your beer.

• Crystal malts are already caramelized, so they respond well to steeping. Other grains, such as Munich and Vienna, must be mashed.

Issue: February 1997