Beer Fact Friday: Malt

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Remember the good old days when a nickel would get you a chocolate malted at the soda fountain? Of course you don’t; you’re not 100. So you probably know that these days, most people using the word “malted” are talking about malted grain, one of the four main ingredients in beer.

Malted grain (or just “malt”) is the ingredient that provides sugar to a beer—sugar that the yeast will later consume to produce carbon dioxide and sweet, sweet alcohol. As such, it’s pretty important. But when freshly harvested, grains such as barley, wheat, or rye are of little use to brewers. The building blocks to a great beer—proteins, enzymes, and the starches that’ll become sugars—are trapped inside each kernel or seed. So before the grain can fulfill its beery destiny, it must be “malted” through a process that occurs outside the brewery, usually at a farm or factory.
Malting is essentially the first step in beer making. It occurs across three main stages:

  1. STEEPING. The grain is soaked with water and drained in roughly 8-hour intervals. Water absorption activates enzymes and hormones within each kernel/seed. After a while, tiny roots called “chits” become visible, and the grain is moved to the second stage.
  2. GERMINATION. The grain is kept at 61-66 degrees, aerated, and turned for 4-6 days. During this stage, enzymes within the grain produce malt sugars, soluble starch, and other nutrients usable by yeast.
  3. KILNING. When the grain is ready to be dried, it’s moved into a kiln. Hot air is circulated through the grain, killing the growing embryo but preserving the enzymes, starches, and nutrients for later use by the brewer. The degree of kilning can also determine the color and flavor of the malt.

One important note on the way out: Any grain can be “malt” as long as it’s malted. Brewers can (and do) use malted barley, malted wheat, malted rye, and more grains to make their beers.

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