Malt, hops, yeast, water. There have been extensive studies into each of these ingredients and their impact on the final beer product, but often it is the large flavor contributors such as hops, yeast, and specialty malts that get the most attention. While the influence of base malts in the final beer product might be subtle in comparison, it still will have an effect on your beer and knowing how they impact the final product can help you to better predict how your final beer will turn out. Base malts are exactly as they sound, the foundation the beer is built on. They are the major contributor of the carbohydrates (from starch), proteins, and enzymes in the beer. They are the workhorse of a malt bill and sometimes are just treated as such, but just because they are used primarily as a carbohydrate and enzyme source, that does not mean they are all interchangeable. Base malts have their subtle differences as well, and often there is a good reason why a specific base malt was used in a given recipe. Knowing the differences in the malts can help you choose the right base malt for your brew.
2-row vs. 6-row malt
The first aspect to consider in choosing a base malt is whether it is a 2-row or a 6-row malt. Outside of the US, 2-row is basically the standard for all base malts, and you would be hard pressed to find a 6-row malt for brewing. Even in the US, for the most part, base malts will almost always be 2-row for a number of reasons. 2-row grows fewer grains on the head of the barley (2 per head instead of 6 per head). This allows the grains to grow plumper, and will typically result in a larger and more consistent grain size. 6-row on the other hand will usually grow different sizes of grains, partly because the barley head is more crowded, but also because the grains grow in pairs directly across from each other on the head of the barley, and often times two of the grains on the head grow larger than the rest. This leads to an inconsistent grain size with some of the grains being larger than the rest. Because of the larger grain size in 2-row malt, it is described as having a mellower/maltier flavor whereas 6-row is described as having a grainier flavor. 2-row also has a higher starch content and can produce a higher extract, which is one of the reasons it is often the barley of choice for most maltsters.
The grainy flavor of 6-row is partly due to the higher husk-to-malt ratio of the grain. The husks contain a majority of the tannins, polyphenols, and proteins in the malt, so with a higher husk ratio, you will extract more of these qualities in the produced beer. One advantage of the higher husk ratio of 6-row malt is in building the filter bed during the lautering process. Having more husks helps to build a better filter bed, so 6-row malt is often easier to lauter. 6-row malt also has higher enzymatic activity and it is a good choice when using adjunct starch sources or a large ratio of highly under-modified malt due to its increased enzymatic activity. That is one of the reasons why it is often the choice of large production breweries. Large breweries will use cheaper adjuncts such as corn and rice, and they need the increased enzymatic activity to fully convert the adjuncts. Another reason they will choose 6-row malt is that it may cost less than 2-row malt depending on where the brewery is located. The cost savings comes from the fact that more grain is produced per barley stalk than 2-row, so you can produce more malt per acre of planted barley, which lowers the cost per pound of the finished product.
As mentioned before, for the most part you will only be using 2-row malts in brewing, but 6-row does have its place in beer production so it is good to be aware of its characteristics.
One final note, malted barley is not always going to be the only source of starch in a mash. Some styles will often call for other grains such as rye, oats, sorghum, and wheat. These will need the enzymatic activity from the malt to convert the starches, or enzymes will need to be added. If you are looking for a high ratio of adjunct grains, and you are not adding any extra enzymes, consider using 6-row malt for its higher diastatic power.
Differences in Base Malts
Another aspect to consider is the origin of the base malt. Outside of the US, base malts will almost exclusively come from 2-row barley, and can have slightly different flavor characteristics. There are a number of reasons that the flavor can differ in base malts of the same style, including where the barley is grown (terroir), what barley variety the maltster uses, the malting and kilning process the maltster uses, what characteristics the maltster is targeting, what moisture level the maltster is targeting, and many more choices that the maltster will make. Without going into too much detail about malt production, the maltster will determine the best way to produce a malt that falls within specification, and is as consistent as possible with their previous malt batches. The maltster will work closely with the farmers, and usually will receive and test the barley before committing to using it for malting. They will be looking for a number of parameters including, but certainly not limited to, dormancy of the malt, protein content, moisture content, and grain size. The maltster goes through a lot of hard work to produce a high-quality, consistent base malt, and will oftentimes make adjustments on the fly to ensure that the malt is within specified parameters.
A good starting point in choosing which base malt to pick for your beer would be looking at the data the maltster provides. They will often give an accurate description of the malt itself, and what characteristics you can expect when using their malt. Along with flavor descriptors, a maltster will provide some other specifications about the malt. The specifications may vary slightly depending on what methods were used, for example ASBC, IBD or EBC, and how many tests the lab decided to perform, but typically you can find information on the target range or minimum/maximum of specific qualities of the malt such as color, moisture, protein totals, expected extract, and usage rates. There may be more or less information, again depending on what the lab is testing for, but these characteristics are generally tested with most base malts and can offer some valuable information. In general, lower moisture malt will hold up better for storage. Higher protein can help with better head retention in the beer, and can offer greater nutrition for the yeast during fermentation. This information can give you an idea of how the malt will impact the final beer outside of its flavor and aroma contributions.
There are some general guidelines you will find in malt from various malt growing regions. North American malts can sometimes have an earthier and grassier characteristic, but for the most part are considered fairly neutral. British malts are often described as being more biscuity, bready, and malty. Maris Otter, a barley variety often used in British malts, is a perfect example of the sweet, biscuity flavors that you will get in British malts. German malts can have a mild malty and sometimes slightly medicinal phenolic characteristic.
If you are looking to replicate a specific style, it can be a good idea to try and get base malt from that region the style originated, as that is most likely what the brewers producing that style are using. It is one of the best ways to try to be true to style, although imported malts will usually come at a higher price than domestic malts so that is something to take into consideration. You can sometimes see price savings buying malt in bulk by the bag, but when committing to a full bag of base malt you will want to be sure you find something that you like and converts well.
If you are new to the different base malts, one of the best ways to understand them is to get your hands on the different varieties and give them a taste. If possible, try to get a few samples of the same style (I would recommend pale malt or pale ale malt) from a few different maltsters. It can help you to better understand regional differences, and give you a better idea of what base malt you prefer. Certain styles will call for different base malts and using the right base malt will give you the best chance of brewing an awesome beer. Like specialty malts, base malts also come in a number of varieties. These include: Pale malt, Pilsner malt, pale ale malt, Vienna malt, and Munich malt.
Pale Malt is the most common of the base malts used in beer. It is oftentimes called simply called “2-row” malt. This can be a little confusing to new brewers as basically all the malt they will be using is a type of 2-row malt. Just know that if a recipe calls for 2-row malt by name, they are referring to pale malt. Another name for the same type of malt might be the barley variety itself such as Maris Otter.
Pale malt is light in color and usually will be around 2–2.5 degrees Lovibond. It can be used to make basically any beer style and is highly modified so you will not have any trouble getting extract out of it. If you are not sure what base malt you should be using, start with pale malt. It works well in almost all situations. If you are looking to buy malt in bulk and store it yourself, this is definitely a must-have.
Pilsner malt is typically lighter in color than pale malt, falling into the 1.5–2 degrees Lovibond range. It is used for, as you probably guessed, making Pilsner beers — typically traditional German and Czech Pilsners. It has a lighter and crisper flavor than pale malt and the flavor is very subtle so it is best to use this malt with other light malts, or as the entire mash bill.
Within a region, Pilsner malts can sometimes have a bit higher soluble protein content versus other base malts depending on the barley variety the maltster uses, which can provide an added benefit for better head retention in the beer. This may not always hold true when comparing from a single maltster, as oftentimes the maltster is using a single barley variety for multiple malts they produce. You should check the soluble protein of the malt before using it, but if you are looking to add a little extra protein content to your beer, you can consider adding a high-protein Pilsner malt in smaller portions. If you want to replicate a traditional Pilsner style, using 100% Pilsner malt is definitely the best way to go.
Pale Ale Malt
Pale ale malt is slightly more kilned than pale malt and will have a slightly darker color. Usually in the 2.5–3 degrees Lovibond range. Pale ale malt has a more full-bodied flavor and you will get more of the malty aromas with pale ale malt.
It is a great choice for almost any ale — from pale ales and IPAs to porters and stouts. This is an especially good choice for English pale ales, and really any beer that you want a bit more body. Pale ale malts often have a sweet or honey characteristic to them as well, but this can vary by maltster so check if the maltster lists honey as one of its malt descriptors if searching for this characteristic.
Vienna malt is a bit more highly-kilned than the other base malts, and will really shine with its malty flavors and aromas. It is slightly darker than other base malts and will usually be in the 4 degrees Lovibond range. Even though it is more highly-kilned than the other base malts, it still has enough enzymatic activity to complete conversion on its own.
Vienna malt will typically have a grainy, sometimes sweet, malty flavor and will be much more pronounced than any of the other previous base malts. Vienna malt is typically used in Oktoberfest lagers and Vienna-style lagers.
Munich malt is the last on the list and is the most highly kilned of the base malts. Its color can range the most out of the base malts, weighing in anywhere in the 7–30 degrees Lovibond range, so it is good to check the color of the malt before using it as darker Munich malts and lighter Munich malts can have very different characteristics. Lighter Munich malts are less kilned than their darker counterparts so they will have more enzymes still intact and should still be able to convert the mash fairly easily. Darker Munich malts, on the other hand, because of the higher temperatures of the kilning, will have much less enzymatic activity and you should compensate with some other base malts in the mash bill to achieve full conversion.
The flavor of Munich malts tends to be deep grainy/malty, sometimes bordering on toasty depending on how highly they were kilned. Munich malt is usually called for in German-style dark lagers, bocks, Munich dunkels, and Oktoberfest styles.
You might be wondering why Vienna and Munich malts are on the list of base malts. This is mostly because of their ability to convert starches to sugars and because these malts are used as base malts for classic styles from these areas. They still have enough diastatic power to do the work of base malts. They kind of bridge the gap between base malts and specialty malts and can be used as either. Vienna and light Munich can be used upwards of 100% in recipes, but more often they are used in lower percentages to add some color, body, and flavor to
Finally, a quick note on storage of base malts. Because base malts are not as highly-kilned as other specialty malts, they are usually not able to be stored as long as specialty malts. With proper storage, base malts can start to see loss of quality and flavor after 6 months. Specialty malts, on the other hand, can start to see loss of flavor and quality after 12–18 months.
A base malt that has started to go bad will see loss of enzymatic activity, may be harder to grind, and sometimes can add a haze to the final beer product. Moisture is going to degrade the quality of the malt so storing it in a cool, dry place will prolong the life and quality of the malt. Keeping the malt whole and protected by the husk until brew day is another important step in keeping the quality of the malt the same as when you bought it. If you do need to crush it and then store it, or if you purchased pre-crushed malt, keep it in a dark, cool, extremely dry place, and use it as quickly as possible. Unlike whole malts, crushed malts do not have an intact husk to add an extra layer of protection from excess moisture and can go stale much more quickly.
One quick and easy check is to give the malt a taste. If it tastes stale or unusual, it might have gone bad or be on the downturn. Another quick test would be to weigh the malt to see how much moisture the malt has picked up. If you had an exact weight of the fresh malt (say 50 lbs./22.7 kg) and the malt now weights significantly more (say 50.5 lbs./22.9 kg) it has picked up moisture and that can lead to mold or undesirable flavors.
Base malts are some of the best to purchase in bulk because of how much of the grain bill typically consists of base malts and the savings that come along with purchasing 50-lb./22.7-kg sacks vs. just enough for each single batch individually. Investing in good malt storage containers can definitely help to prolong the life of the malt. Good storage containers should be made of a strong, durable material (plastic works great), and should be airtight. They should be able to keep out moisture and bugs to keep the malt dry and free of contaminates.
Base malts do more than just add carbohydrates and aroma to the beer, they play an important role in the final beer product. There are many base malt options available (maybe not as much as specialty malts), but knowing the subtle differences and choosing the right base malt can take your beer from great to amazing. Using the correct base malt will also help you to accurately replicate styles from around the world. While big, bold flavor contributors may be seen as the stars of the show, base malts still play an important role in your beer. Knowing the options of base malts available and choosing the right one is the foundation to building an awesome beer.