How to Choose the Right Malt Before You Commit to a Batch

by Katie Sloan Updated on September 1, 2016

So many malts!

So many malts!

This June, I attended Homebrew Con in Baltimore, MD. So much beer, so many seminars, such delicious crab cakes.

Also, so many samples. Hop samples, yeast samples, and malt samples. Between Jon and I, we walked out with two bags stuffed full of samples. Seriously stuffed. One of the bags even ripped in the trunk on the way home, but what would you expect from a free bag, right?

Now here they sit in my brewing cabinet. Hop samples I make use of. Dry yeast samples too. But one ounce of chocolate rye? What am I going to do with that?

Sure, I have a recipe somewhere that needs just a touch of complexity. But I have 10 of these samples that are all over the board! Oh wait, didn’t I attend a seminar about malt evaluation?

Yes I did!

The Seminar: “Sensory Evaluation of Specialty Malts: A Practical Approach to Describing Malt Flavors”

It was presented by Bob Hanson and created by Cassie Liscomb. Both are from Briess Malt Company

We took on this experiment, the “Hot Steep Method,” which is based off a congress mash. (Congress Mash = expensive and precise and not really for homebrewers).

This experiment could be used by someone who wants a deeper understanding of which malt flavor in their homebrew comes from which malt. It is a good way to find what malt flavors you prefer or to compare different brands of the same type of malt.

We used it to learn a little more about specific flavors in different types of malts (and to use up all those free samples). We made a couple mistakes along the way, but overall I am happy with the results.

Here are the directions we followed, paraphrased from the Briess web-site (with a touch of my extra, special, commentary)

The Experiment: The Hot Steep Method

An in-home method designed by the Briess Technical Experts.

Materials:

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  • Whole kernel malt (Got it! So much of it!)
  • Distilled water
  • Insulated Thermos (We ended up with one coffee mug and one somewhat insulated growler. Guess I need a bigger coffee thermos?)
  • Thermometer
  • Funnels
  • Cone Coffee filter (Even if they say they are guaranteed not to break at the seams, do not believe them! Have extras set aside)
  • Coffee mill (So much fun to clean in between samples)
  • Clear Container
  • Liquid Measuring device
  • Scale with mass setting

The Hot Steep Process

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  1. Place 55 grams of malt in coffee mill
  2. Close lid and grind for 30 seconds until malt is the consistency of flour
  3. Weigh 50 ± 0.05 g malt flour and place in an insulated thermos. Pour 400 mL of 149°F distilled water into the thermos (All these metric units are killing me! I changed the temperature units right off the bat)
  4. Close and vigorously shake for 20 seconds (ha no metric measurement for that!)
  5. Let sit for 15 minutes (Don’t forget your timer!)
  6. Assemble cone coffee filter inside of large plastic funnel
  7. Place over the clean, clear container for wort collection
  8. After 15 minutes, vigorously swirl thermos for 20 seconds, then uncap
  9. Quickly pour mash liquid through filter (Good luck with the quick part! It wants to go everywhere and the #4 filter they suggest is JUST big enough. Use a #6 instead of a #4 filter!)
  10. Allow 100 mL of wort to collect before pouring back into the thermos to rinse (similar to a sparge)
  11. Swirl in thermos (or growler) to collect any grist that remains on the walls of the thermos, then gently re-pour back through the filter

Notes (READ THESE BEFORE YOU START)

These are the notes that were provided from Briess (as always with a little extra comentary).

I don’t like reading directions, so extra notes? Forget about it! I almost skipped over these completely. From experience, I can tell you that skpping is a bad idea.

  • Malt ratios: Base malts: 100%; Specialty malts: 50% specialty 50% base; Dark Roasted specialty: 15% roasted 85% base
  • If you change the batch size, maintain 8:1 liquor to grist ratio
  • Container must be tall enough so that bottom of funnel will rest above the level of wort collection
  • Entire contents must be poured through filter at once so that the grain bed can settle without being disturbed (Easier said than done)
  • Filtration rate and sample yield will be influenced by malt type and modification level (It will not be as fast as you think)
  • Perform wort sensory evaluation the same day – taste at room temperature (The best part!)

How did we fare?

We used six different malts we had kicking around. The varieties were all over the place, as you can see in the picture. If I were to repeat this experiment I would use malts more closely related to each other. That would help with malt selection in recipe writing.

Since we started later in the day than we intended (as always), we tried to overlap our samples so we were not waiting all night for grains to steep. We would have one filtering while another one was steeping. Multitasking is my favorite.

Side note: The filtering takes time. I don’t know why we thought it would run through quickly, we crushed the grains into flour, duh.

We went in assuming all our coffee thermoses were big enough to hold the samples. How does the quote go? Assuming makes an ass out of… Yup. Check before you start. Don’t just guess, because running around your kitchen searching for a properly sized insulated container sucks!

We ended up grabbing a metal growler that worked out ok. As for temperature consistency across samples… Sigh.

To achieve the 149°F we set our strike temperature at 152°F. We should have also taken the temp of the mixture as it came out of the steeping vessel for consistency and more data, but we did not think of it until of the part way through.

The longest part of the experiment is waiting for the samples to cool so they can be sampled. The best part? The sampling!

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Here are the spreadsheets Jon and I filled out:

While tasting the samples, Jon and I used a scale from 0-5. Zero being not detectable and five being very strongly detectable. I chose a few malt descriptors from lighter flavors through to stronger, “darker” flavors. I chose these descriptors to cover a wide range of flavors since we were tasting a wide range of malts.

We each tasted the samples without sharing our reactions. Then we compared and created the graphs.

KT’s Flavor and Aroma Assessment

kt_table

Jon’s Flavor and Aroma Assessment

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Now that is a whole lot of numbers that mean very little…

Here are a few more informative charts I put together (Ok — lies. Jon helped out a lot putting these charts together. I am many things, but computer inclined is not one of them!)

The first set of charts include both my and Jon’s perceptions of the aroma and flavor of each individual malt. To compare and contrast our reactions to the malt “teas.”

chart1
We both got strong doughy flavors and aromas out of this malt. We also both detected a touch of wood. I apparently got a touch of molasses that Jon did not.

chart2

We had a bigger discrepancy with this sample. While we both agreed on the bread and cracker, Jon got a lot more crust, toast, and nuttiness than I did. I got toffee and a note of bitter aroma, while Jon argues you cannot smell bitter.

Maybe he is correct. Bitter is a flavor and not a specific aroma, but in my defense, it smelled like it would taste bitter. Does that make sense? Doesn’t really matter — it is my experiment! If you don’t agree, do it yourself!

chart3

I had to add a smoked malt into the mix. I love smoked malts. They make me so happy.

As you can tell, I found this malt much more characterful than Jon. I gave it higher numbers in multiple areas, my bias towards the flavors and aromas of smoked malt might have an effect on this. This is a potential problem with this experiment, especially with such a specific style of malt.

The biggest discrepancy between us appears to be that I got a touch of burnt flavor and aroma.

chart4
I found a lot more depth of character in this malt than Jon did. I got toffee, molasses, and raisin while Jon got none of that. I also could sense coffee, chocolate, and burnt characteristics, where Jon only got a touch of chocolate flavor.

I also find it interesting that I perceived doughiness in the aroma but Jon found it instead in the flavor.

chart5
We came a touch closer in our assessments on this malt. While I got toffee, molasses and raisin, we both sensed and equivalent amount of spiciness, and similar amount of roastiness.

chart6
We both got the typical bread expected from wheat although at slightly different strengths. The same comparison can be made about toast and coffee. Of note, all our perceptions of this malt were much lower in intensity than most of the other samples. Could this be because we tasted it last? Or is it an actual observation of the malt sample? Perhaps it was the larger ratio of base malt to roasted malt in the mixture…

Conclusions

After taking a look at these charts, I found them informative, but I wanted more. We put together these spider charts with the averages of our observations for all malts in both aroma and flavor.
spider-1
spider-2
Obviously, this is a very small sample size, but I figured better to average what we had then choose one person’s opinion or the other. It is the closest I could come to a consensus.

While there are a lot of colors going on here, there are some very clear points to be made from this chart.

First, if you are looking for cracker flavors, go with biscuit; roast, chocolate rye; and a good mix of crust and toast, caramel rye is the ticket.

Also, chocolate rye appears to have the biggest spread of distinguishable aromas while biscuit is the most limited.

An interesting note on this chart compared to the last: Biscuit is not the most intense in the flavor department. Loughran Stout takes that spot.. Also Midnight Wheat makes a showing (finally) in the roasty flavor area.

Overall I found this experiment interesting and informative. For a better, more well-rounded experiment I would make a few changes:

  • Use one style of malt to find the differences. This could aid in recipe writing. Giving you greater control over your malt flavor profiles.  i.e.: caramel 60, caramel 120, caramel rye
  • Use a larger data pool in order to get more well rounded data. Make it a party! Get your friends who don’t know a lot about beer involved. I find they have some of the most interesting and unburdened descriptions of beer/malt flavors.
  • Go in more prepared than I did. I had a few oopsies mid experiment, which could have been prevented.These mistakes definitely affected the consistency of my experiment.

I hope this inspires you to get to know your favorite malts a little bit better! Don’t take my experiment as fact, go try it yourself!

Katie has a passion for all things beer. She worked at The Bronx Brewery as the Tasting Room supervisor and helped develop homebrew classes to be taught there. She came to homebrewing through the Cicerone® program. She is a Certified Cicerone® but does not plan on stopping there. She also has taken the BJCP exam. She teaches children’s dance classes in her spare time and used to be a professional dancer herself. Katie resides in NYC where she makes it work in her small apartment with plenty of help from her boyfriend Jon and the homebrewery cat Merlin.