Black is Beautiful: Black Malts

My mother’s favorite phrase for a really dark place was “It’s as black as Newgate’s Knocker!” This derived from the infamous Newgate prison where public executions of criminals were carried out in the 18th and 19th centuries. I suppose the connection was that once you went through the door of Newgate you would soon be in eternal darkness. So what’s my point you may be asking? Well, the prison sat in the City of London, which was where porter was first produced. And black malt has a close connection to porter brewing.

Black malt is in fact the daddy of all high-roast malts, being first produced in a coffee roaster by one Daniel Wheeler in 1817, and it soon found wide application as a replacement for brown malt in commercial porter and stout brewing. Wheeler actually patented the process and long after the patent expired, even into the 20th century, it was still often referred to as “patent malt.” In the late 19th century, Wheeler’s techniques were adapted first to produce crystal malt, and then high roasted malts of a lighter color than black, such as chocolate malt. Modern maltsters have developed the whole process still further, so that there is now a wide range of them running from a very pale color right up to deep black, but black malt itself still remains a powerful tool for the brewer.

Black malt does not always get the recognition from homebrewers that it deserves, which is a pity because it can add something to a wide range of beers; it isn’t just for coloring and flavoring dry stout as many people seem to think. It is often thought that there is only one grade of black malt because in producing it the roasting temperature is taken to only just below the ignition point of the malt. And indeed, for many years it was common practice for the maltster to have a bucket of water close to hand in case things got out of hand and the malt ignited! Roasted malt production is still very much a craft, but modern maltsters are more sophisticated and knowledgeable than their predecessors and can control the process to produce a variety of black malts. Table 1 (found below), in which the information has been culled from the websites of the manufacturers, demonstrates this.

You can see that there is some variation in color of these, but not surprisingly they are all very black and will impart a black color to beer even in small amounts. Those made from de-husked barley are primarily intended for use as coloring agents, for they will give the beer a smooth roasted chocolate/coffee flavor without the astringency more common to the “regular” black malts. However, in some of these products not all the husk is removed before malting so they will still confer some astringency on beer, which is caused by roasting the husk. Briess claims that their BlackPrinz® is made from barley that bears a hull in the field but not in the harvested grain, (in this respect it is similar to wheat) and will therefore offer the smoothest flavor of any black malt.

How much should you use?

As I have suggested, all these black malts can be used in all sorts of beers, other than stouts and porters, with the de-bittered types being particularly useful for more delicately flavored beers such as black lagers, mild and brown ales, and even bitter ales. The key to using black malt is the proportion used. Very small amounts, say 1 oz. (28 g) in 5 gallons (19 L), can add a background hint of roastiness without adding very much in the way of color, depending upon the base color of the beer in question. But this can work the other way too — you should not assume that you can just chuck large proportions of black malt into a beer or you will get something that tastes unpleasantly sharp and acrid.

Note that black malt yields some extract so its use will add to the beer’s original gravity. The maximum yield is about 70%, or an original gravity (OG) of 1.033/lb./gallon. Using BYO’s usual 65% brewhouse efficiency, that equates to an OG of 1.021/lb./gallon. And, of course, black malt contains no starch, so its extract can be directly leached out with hot water and mashing is unnecessary. Therefore, it can easily be used in malt extract brewing, although remember to allow for any roasted malts that may have been used in the preparation of the extract you are using. If you are going to use a significant amount of black malt in an extract-based beer, it is generally safer to use a plain, pale extract as the base.

There are a few points I should make about Table 2 (found below). It is not meant to be exclusive and reflects my personal approach so it should not be regarded as limiting or prescriptive. Also, it may be misleading in the sense that in many cases black malt may not be used alone, but may be combined with other roast malts, such as chocolate. This is particularly true of the porters and stouts where black malt is often used in combination with brown and/or chocolate malts, or, in the case of dry stout roasted barley. In such cases you should use less black malt than I have suggested. Probably the best approach is to keep the total weight of roasted malts at or below 10% of the total weight of grain malt. In the case of a malt extract brew the roasted malts should not exceed about 15% of the total weight of extract used. And remember that the amount of black malt you use depends upon the OG of the beer in question. Table 2 has allowed for this but if you want to depart from the standard OG for these styles you may have to decrease the amount of black malt used. The best approach in experimenting with black malt is to think small rather than big. If you don’t you will produce a beer that apparently exhibits only one flavor and is very astringent!

How should black malt be used?

What I haven’t discussed yet is at what stage in the brewing process black malt should be added. While this would seem to be straightforward, there are different schools of thought on this even among commercial brewers.

What is probably the most common practice for all-grain brewers is to add the black malt along with the other grains in the mash. Extract brewers would of course do a hot water steep and add the liquor from this to the rest of the water and the extract. In fact, I know of at least one English commercial brewer who practiced the steep approach, adding the liquor to the wort runoff from the mash. The idea behind this is that it results in less astringency in the final beer. Personally, I am not so sure that this is the case unless the steep tem-perature is lower than that of the mash, or the proportion of black malt being used is high, say 15% or more of the total malt. In any case, if you are worried about astringent flavors in the beer you can simply use one of the de-bittered black malts instead of the more usual type. A third approach is to add the black malt to the hot wort directly. Adding it before the boil is not recommended, simply because that may well extract astringent flavors as the boil is much hotter than the mash, or in a steep. So it is best done at the end of the boil, which requires a rest before cooling in order to extract both color and flavoring from the black malt. Optimum results are obtained if black malt flour is used; since this offers a much higher surface area per unit weight of black malt than do grains that have been merely crushed. Commercial brewers usually add this at knockout, before whirlpooling, so that the malt sits in the hot wort for at least half an hour before transfer of wort to the fermenter. They do not have to worry about carryover of this malt to the fermenter, since it will be largely contained in the dense trub formed by the action of the whirlpool. This might be a concern to the homebrewer who doesn’t have a whirlpool, but I do not think it would be a problem; most of the malt will still stay with the trub, and what doesn’t will have little or no effect on beer flavor and will settle out with the yeast at the end of fermentation.

My own approach is the simple one — in the mash for all-grain and steep separately for extract beers, and I do not normally find astringency noticeable in the resultant beer. Perhaps that is because I tend to work at the lower levels given in Table 2 in most cases. Even in brewing one of the stout family of beers I tend to use a mix of roast malts, such as black plus chocolate plus brown, especially in the bigger styles such as Imperial stout. Only in dry stout would I go for black malt alone, and then that’s usually in combination with roasted barley.


Black malt is much more than a single product and can be used in a variety of ways and in a variety of beers. Think about using it in everything from Pilsners and bitters to black IPAs and imperial stouts, and let black malt help you produce your own brewing masterpiece. Now, I certainly hope that’s the last time I use such an oxymoronic term as “black IPA.”

Table 1: A Survey of Available Black Malts
* These malts are made from de-husked barley.

Table 2: Suggested Black Malt — Usage by Style
* In the cases of porters and stouts these numbers assume that the only roasted grain used is black malt.

Examples: Here are the recipes for two stouts, both of historical significance, to emphasize for you the proportion of malts they use. The first is from the 18th century, the second is from the 19th century. Both were brewed commercially in London, but the second was obviously intended to match the product of a certain Irish brewer.

Bankside Brown Stout

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.109 FG = 1.040
IBU = 100+ SRM = 87 ABV = 9.2%

13 lbs. (5.9 kg) Briess 2-row pale malt (2 °L)
6.5 lbs. (3 kg) Crisp brown malt (65 °L)
3 lbs. (1.4 kg) Crisp amber malt (27 °L)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Crisp black malt (600 °L)
36 AAU Columbus hops (90 min.) (3 oz./85 g at 12% alpha acids)
White Labs WLP007 (Dry English Ale) or Wyeast 1098 (British Ale) yeast (3 packs as 2 quart/1.9 L starter)

Step by Step
This is a single-infusion mash. Mix the crushed grains with 29 quarts (27 L) strike water to stabilize at 150 °F (66 °C). This is a 90-minute boil so be sure to collect at least 6.5 gallons (25 L) wort in your kettle to accommodate the extra evaporation. Add hops as the wort reaches a boil. After 90 minutes, cool wort to 68 °F (20 °C) and pitch yeast. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C) and allow to condition for at least one month prior to bottling or kegging.

Dublin Stout

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.085 FG = 1.026
IBU = 83 SRM = 45 ABV = 7.6%

12 lbs. (5.4 kg) pale malt syrup (10 °L)
0.75 lb. (0.34 kg) black malt (550 °L)
23 AAU Target hops (90 mins.) (2.3 oz./65 g at 10% alpha acids)
White Labs WLP004 (Irish Ale) or Wyeast 1084 (Irish Ale) yeast (2 packs as 1.5 quart/1.4 L starter)

Step by Step
Steep the crushed black malt in 2 quarts (1.9 L) water at 150-160 °F (66-71 °C) for 20 minutes. Wash the grain bag with 2 quarts (1.9 L) hot water and top off kettle. This is a 90-minute boil so if you are doing a full wort boil, be sure to top off to at least 6.5 gallons (25 L) wort in your kettle to accommodate extra evaporation. Before reaching a boil, remove your kettle from heat and stir in the malt syrup. Be sure to stir until fully dissolved and return to heat. Add hops as the wort reaches a boil. After 90 minutes, cool wort to 68 °F (20 °C) and pitch yeast. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C) and allow to condition for at least one month prior to bottling or kegging.

Issue: December 2013