Smoking & Roasting Malts

Why would you want to smoke your own malt, or make your own roasted malts? After all, smoked malts are available from respected suppliers such as Briess, Weyermann, and Simpsons, and we have access to a whole range of roasted malts from a wide variety of maltsters. Adding another step to the brewing process might therefore seem unnecessary to many of you. But to others, this is a chance to indulge their experimental urges and to produce a truly unique beer. Besides, there is an argument that both smoked and roasted malts give the best results when used fresh and not stored for long periods. There seems to be only anecdotal evidence for this, but I certainly have noticed a loss of smoke character in peat smoked malt when kept for up to a year. I am not trying to sell you on smoking/roasting your own, I am merely offering some approaches for this to those who would like to put an even larger fingerprint on what they brew.

Smoking malt

There are a number of variables to consider before you start. Perhaps the most important one is just what kind of beer it is that you want to brew and just how much smoke flavor you want that beer to have. Do you want the smoke to dominate the beer’s palate, or do you want a more subtle effect? Apart from anything else that would determine how much smoked malt you need to prepare. As far as the beer style goes you probably wouldn’t want to add smoke character to an IPA because that is a beer that is all about hop character and aroma. For my money smoke doesn’t go well with most session beers. Since these are relatively light in flavor, that added smoke dominates everything else and makes the beer one-dimensional. Most commonly, brewers have opted first for beers similar to Bamberger Rauchbier, a long-established commercial German beer with a very pronounced smoky flavor.

Other popular choices for adding smoke flavor are beers that already have a depth of flavor, notably porters and stouts. As a matter of interest, one of the reasons for doing this is because it is held by many that the early porters would have had a smoky character because of the way the malt was dried. I am not convinced by this argument, because brown malt was a major component of those porter grists and this was dried very quickly under very high heat, which is exactly the set of conditions that are opposite to those required for smoking. That is another story, and there is no doubt that some very good smoked porters have been produced by modern craft brewers, with perhaps the standout being Alaskan Smoked Porter. But Scottish ales have also proved to be a popular vehicle for smoke flavor, with peat-smoked malt — rather than wood smoked malt — providing that flavor. Again the logic is dubious and based on the idea that since peat-smoked malts are commonly used in Scotch whiskies they must also have been used in beer brewing in Scotland. There seems to be scant evidence that this was indeed the case, but the combination does seem to work effectively and I have had one or two very tasty peat-smoked wee heavies. However, if you are planning on brewing with smoked malts you are, almost by definition, pushing the envelope. Therefore you can ignore other people’s ideas and use any base beer you wish. But remember that if a little is good, it does not follow that more is better!

The next variable you will have to consider is what wood you are going to use in smoking the malt. Beech is classic for Bamberg Rauchbier, but almost any hardwood will serve and brewers have had success with applewood, cherrywood, hickory, mesquite, alder, and oak. But every wood will give a different smoked character and there are many other types to try if you are in the mood for experimentation, or if you just happen to have a supply of a particular wood. Whatever your choice the wood should be in the form of chips, dry, and well-seasoned – one source says the beech used for smoking malt in Bamberg may have been matured for as long as three years before use. I don’t know if anybody out there has tried making their own peat-smoked malt so I can’t comment, except to say that commercial peat malts are quite a strong flavor. Therefore this type of malt is usually used at a low level, say up to 5% of the grist, so that you might prefer to use the commercial variety rather than to smoke such a small amount.

As far as equipment goes, all you need is a smoker where the malt can sit well above the fire, since you want to smoke the malt, not burn it! Bearing this in mind you could probably use a gas grill or regular barbecue unit, but a purpose–built smoker is obviously ideal, especially if you have one that uses an electrical heater. You want to have as little fire as possible because you want to cool-smoke the malt, just as is done in making smoked salmon. You do not want to heat the malt at all if possible. This is especially true if you want to make the smoked malt your base grain since heating it will destroy the enzymes you will need to be present to get good conversion in the mash. It may therefore be a good idea to keep the wood slightly damp, using a water spray bottle to control any flaming of the wood. Some brewers actually soak the wood with water before putting it in the smoker.

The most efficient way of smoking is to thoroughly wet the malt by soaking it with about 1 cup (8 oz./237 mL) of water per 1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) of grain. It may also be desirable to dampen it with water at intervals. Wet malt adsorbs smoke more readily than if it is dry, although some brewers have used dry smoking with acceptable results. Do note that the water you use must not be chlorinated, as chlorine can react with chemicals in the smoke giving some very unpleasant flavors. Many “smokers” prefer distilled water for this purpose, although I think water filtered through activated carbon is also suitable. Just how long you should smoke the malt is up to you, but 45 minutes to two hours should give you all the flavor you want, depending upon how much malt you are using. A common amount is 5 lbs. (2.3 kg). I don’t recommend doing smaller amounts — if you are going to go through this effort, smoke enough for more than one batch of beer.

How much smoked malt you should add to the grist when it comes to brewing the beer depends on the level of smoke flavor you have achieved, the style of beer you want to brew, and on how much you like smoke. You are well-advised to experiment and to brew several batches of beer from the same recipe, adjusting the amount of smoked malt as you go. For me, an obvious starting point would be for smoked malt to make up 10% of the grist and depending on the results to go up or down from there in subsequent batches.

Roasting your own malt

As I said before, we already have a wide range of roasted malts available to us, so you might not think it worthwhile to roast your own. This can be a very fruitful field in the sense that you will be using different methods and starting materials than those used by commercial maltsters so that you can produce examples of these malts that have different flavoring effects than the commercial examples. My choices to make at home are crystal/caramel, amber and brown malts, which can fairly easily be made in a domestic oven. Do use a thermocouple type thermometer and don’t rely on the oven settings. In theory you can also make chocolate and black malts at home, but the methods to do so are less straightforward as I’ll discuss later.

Amber malt

Set the oven to 185 °F (85 °C), then take 5 lbs. (2.3 kg) of pale malt (I prefer Maris Otter variety), and place it in a shallow pan. Spread it as evenly as possible in the pan to a depth of about 1 inch (2.5 cm); use a smaller amount if necessary, so that you do not exceed this depth. Place it in the oven for 25 minutes, then set the temperature to 190 °F (88 °C) and leave for 30 minutes. Raise settings in steps at 200 °F (93 °C), 220 °F (104 °C), 230 °F (110 °C), and 250 °F (121 °C), allowing a 25–30 minute rest at each setting. At this point take a number of kernels (15–20) and break or cut them; they should have a very pale brown or buff color when compared to a sample of the starting pale malt. This is then the lowest color level for amber malt, and can be used as such in a brew. In order to develop the full color continue at 250 °F (121 °C) for 45 minutes or so, until the grain samples show a definite pale brown color, which is about the maximum color for amber malt. If you have a few grains of commercial amber malt use these for color comparison rather than pale malt. Let cool and store in an airtight container until use.

Brown malt

Proceed exactly as amber malt, making a color comparison only after reaching the final amber malt stage. Raise the setting to 300 °F (149 °C) and maintain it for 30 minutes. Then raise the setting to 350 °F (177 °C) for 20 minutes, and check for color as above, preferably against grains of commercial brown malt. If the color has reached a definite brown (but light as in “brown bag”), you’re done. If it is too pale, continue heating for another 20 minutes, but no more. Allow to cool and keep in an airtight container until used for brewing.

Both amber and brown malts are primarily suited for brewing porters, stouts, milds, and old ales. They must be mashed since they contain starch but no enzymes, so can only be used in all-grain and partial mashing methods. In general they should be used at the rate of 5–10% of the grist, or about 1 lb. (0.45 kg.) in a 5-gallon (19-L) brew. Amber adds a nutty, biscuity flavor to the brew while brown malt provides a luscious quality and a licorice flavor.

Crystal malt

Commercial crystal malts are made from undried green malt roasted in sealed containers so that the residual water and heat cause conversion of the grain starch to crystalline sugars. You will probably not have access to green malt (unless you do your own malting) so will have to take a different approach and start with pale malt.

Soak the grains in water for about 24 hours, drain off the water, then lay the grains in a baking tray and heat in the oven at around 150 °F (65 °C) for an hour or two to convert the starch to sugar. Then take the oven up to 212 °F (100 °C) and hold it there for 1 hour in order to caramelize the sugar inside the grain. This should give the inside of the grain a golden color, probably somewhere in the range 20–50 °L. For darker colors and a higher level of caramelization, continue heating at 212 °F (100 °C). Check two or three grains at 15-minute intervals to determine whether they have reached the right level of color. Do not roast any further once the interiors are a dark red color or they will start to become quite harsh in character.

As far as use is concerned, your crystal malt can be used in any brew that calls for crystal and will give color and sweet, nutty, mildly roasted character to a beer, along with some unfermentable material that will add to the finished gravity of the beer. It contains no enzymes and no starch, so can be used steeped in extract plus grain recipes or in all-grain brewing.

Chocolate malt

This, I confess, I have not made myself, so I can just offer some advice. On the surface all you need to do is take pale malt in stages up to around 350–400 °F (177–204 °C) until the color of the malt becomes a very dark brown. You need to control the temperature very carefully as it is easy to go too far and produce nothing but carbon. More importantly it is easy for the grain to catch fire at these temperatures, so you should have a hefty water spray bottle on hand. Given this and the fact that the process might produce quite a lot of smoke you are best doing this outside rather than in the kitchen! Black malt needs even more roasting than chocolate malt and there is an even greater risk of auto-ignition and fire during its production.

Issue: December 2016