When we brew according to a recipe, no matter which beer we make, it seems that there is a lack of specificity when it comes to base malts. Often, the only description given is pale malt (or pale malt extract). If the recipe is a touch more sophisticated, it may specify pale ale or Pils (pale lager) malt; it may even specify a malt brand, such as Muntons, Briess, Crisp or Weyermann. But rarely, do the specifications include the barley variety that would best be suited for the recipe or beer style we want to make. The rare exceptions to this rule are British ale recipes that call for Maris Otter or Golden Promise malt.
This seeming lack of attention to the grain raw material of malt has always struck me as surprising, considering that brewers would never assume such a casual attitude towards hops, for instance. Next to water, base malt is the second most plentiful ingredient in virtually any beer, yet the grain source that is responsible for the malt is often completely ignored, as if it were irrelevant.
In fact, as I found out, the grain variety of the base malt does influence the taste of the beer.
Tasting the Importance of Base Barley
The effect of the base malt on the brew is rarely discussed in the brewing literature according to Thomas Kraus-Weyermann of the Weyermann Malting Company in Bamberg, Germany, and Dr. Ulrich Heyse, editor-in-chief of the international brew magazine Brauwelt, in Nuremberg, Germany. If all base malts were essentially the same, regardless of the barley variety from which they are made, then one should not be able to detect a difference among brews that are identical except for the barley variety of their base malts. Thus, these two gentlemen set out to organize a test for this hypothesis, and invited experts from around the globe to participate. Dr. Heyse wrote the protocol for the test according to the guidelines of the European Brewery Congress and the World Beer Cup, which required the tasters to evaluate each beer blindly, on an ascending five-point scale, in terms of color, head, structure, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, balance, and overall quality. In addition, the tasters were asked to supply free-hand impressions of what they were tasting and to discuss the beers after the written test.
Meanwhile, Thomas Kraus-Weyermann used his new 2.5-hectoliter (2.13-barrel/72 gallon) pilot brewery to make four identical Pilsner beers, with only the base malts being derived from the different barley varieties. The barley varieties used in the test were Alexis, Barke, Scarlett, and Steffi. The base malt in all four brews made up 90% of the grist. Weyermann Carafoam® comprised another 5% of the grist and the final 5% was Weyermann Acidulated Malt.
The structured blind taste test was scheduled for Saturday, November 15, 2003, and 19 of the invited international experts were able to make it to Bamberg. Among the panelists were Charlie Papazian, president of the Association of Brewers in Boulder, Colorado; Conrad Seidl, a noted beer journalist based in Vienna, Austria; Helen Knowles, a malt distributor from Toronto, Canada; Seth Schneider, General Manager of Crosby & Baker in Westport, Massachusetts; Jürgen Buhrmann, general manager of the Weyermann Malting Company; David Grinnell, director of brewing operations at the Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams); Dan Carey, president of New Glarus Brewing Company in Wisconsin and winner of four medals at the 2003 Great American Beer Festival; and yours truly from Boston.
Taste Test Results
Not surprisingly, all beers were uniformly judged to have virtually the same straw-blond brilliance, fine effervescence and firm, white, creamy head. Likewise, all the test beers were fairly good. Along other criteria, however, the four brews showed remarkable differences. More than half the panelists ranked the Scarlett beer the maltiest. Scarlett also received very high marks for bitterness, flavor and overall quality. The Steffi beer placed second in maltiness and received rather favorable marks for mouthfeel and overall quality. The Alexis brew was judged to be slightly acidic in the finish, but it was praised for its strong body and mouthfeel. The Barke beer on the other hand seemed to accentuate notes of sulfur and diacetyl more so than did the other varieties, but it was given relatively favorable marks in the areas of bitterness and balance. In final discussions, there was general agreement that the Barke beer differed more from the other three beers than did the other three beers from each other. Given that each test beer was brewed only once, it is possible that some differences between the beers was not due to the barley variety.
Several members of the panel also suggested that perhaps not all four barley varieties were equally suited for Pilsner brewing. Some suggested that Scarlett- and Steffi-based malts are probably the most universally usable ones — especially for low-hop pale to golden brews. Some thought that the Alexis-based malt might be best suited for an assertively hopped pale beer, like a Pilsner, while the Barke-based malt might show up better in such deep-golden to deep-amber beers as Bohemian Pilsner or Oktoberfestbier.
Overall, the brew made with malt from Steffi barley received the most favorable average rating of 3.67 on the 5-point scale — in all characteristics combined from all tasters combined. Scarlett came in second with an average of 3.6 points. Alexis collected an average of 3.3 points and Barke brought up the rear with an average of 2.9 points.
It is interesting to note that the first-ranked Steffi and the third-ranked Alexis are among the oldest, still-planted brewing barley varieties in Germany, though today they account for only a few percentage points of the total acreage devoted to brewing barley in that country. By comparison, the second-ranked Scarlett and the fourth-ranked Barke have been bred only a few years, but together they account for almost half of all German brewing barley.
What Does This Mean to a Homebrewer?
Large commercial breweries, which purchase entire batches (or even trainloads) of malt from a maltster usually specify which of the available barley strains they prefer for their deliveries. The maltster then procures these from farmers or grain merchants. The large breweries, of course, rely for their revenues on the continued acceptance of their signature brands, which their consumers have come to expect to taste the same, year in and year out. These breweries are loath to constantly reformulate their recipes. They simply tell the maltsters and farmers what they want, and they get it.
Homebrewers and small craft brewers on the other hand have no such clout. Therefore, from the point of view of buying your grains or grain extracts based on foundation barley varieties, the Weyermann blind taste test is not going to directly make a difference to you. This is especially true since maltsters and extract manufactures tend not to disclose information about grain varieties on their product packaging or in their catalogues.
Nevertheless, I believe that the lessons learned from the Weyermann taste test can have an important bearing on your attitude towards your brewing hobby. In our brewing, we often strive to replicate our favorite brews or a classic style at home, and then get frustrated when we do not completely hit the mark. We may even believe that the principal reason for the perceived shortcomings in our beer-making stem from a deficiency in our brewing skills or equipment. However, next time you debate the success or failure of your brewing efforts, consider that perhaps the real culprit in the equation is that anonymous and seemingly generic brew ingredient, the base malt.
Also, if you are looking to tweak a homebrew recipe, consider that changing your base malt will alter the character of the beer. Swapping one Pilsner malt for another — or any pale malt for another of the same type — may alter your beer's character in a way you like. Although, you may or may not be changing barley varieties by swapping base malts, it's worth a try.
My experience at the taste test taught me how noticeable the differences in otherwise identical malts can be. All the panelists were able to taste these differences and to assess them qualitatively and quantitatively. Even though homebrewers and small craft brewers may never be able to purchase a base malt by its barley variety, at the very least this article might convince you to refrain, henceforth, from useless self-castigation if your beer turns out differently than planned. Hey, it could be the malt!
Horst Dornbusch is a frequent contributor to Brew Your Own magazine.