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Malt (and barley) matters: Part II

The SessionAnd now – taking a break from our swim in the pool of listmania – we return to our regularly scheduled conversation about what makes the beer we drink different.

So time for Barley Part II (you knew I had another old image I was itching to show you).

In his Great Beers of Belgium, Michael Jackson writes about how Brother Thomas – then the brewing director at Westmalle – favored malts from Beatrice-Gatinais in France because of their softness, but the varieties he chose each year varied. That would indicate he was more concerned with quality than consistency, but that is another conversation. The point would be that he recognized that not all two-row pilsner malt is created equal.

Jackson describes how important this was to Brother Thomas: “In discussing a malt from elsewhere, widely used by other brewers, I asked whether he thought it was perhaps a trifle harsh. ‘It’s brutal!’ he replied, thumping the table.”

Brother Thomas may have been a little harsh himself, but the fact is that two different varieties of barley – let’s say Optic and Scarlett – kilned to the same color and then used precisely the same way in a recipe may produce beers that taste noticeably different. One might showcase hop bitterness, another a richer malt character. One isn’t necessarily better (or the other “brutal”) but they are different.

Weyermann Malting® in Bavaria proved this to a panel of industry members, including many brewers, a few years ago. Weyermann brewed four pilsners on its pilot system, each with malt produced from a different barley, and in a blind tasting the panelists had no trouble telling them apart.

As a result, some breweries have since begun ordering pilsner malt made from a specific barley. This isn’t necessarily realistic for your average small brewery and certainly not for the local brewpub you should be stopping by tonight.

So maybe I don’t have a point, but it seems like information you should have.

Barley Part I (in cased you missed it).

12 Responses to Malt (and barley) matters: Part II

  1. SteveH July 12, 2007 at 11:09 am #

    So, if I can sneak enough of the malt Spaten is using for their Helles and Optimator in place of whatever A-B is using for the *new* Michelob, maybe it will actually taste like an all-malt beer?

    Or, maybe I’ll just buy more Spaten…

  2. Stan Hieronymus July 12, 2007 at 11:46 am #

    Steve – A-B may not be brewing to your and my tastes (though I think we’ve discovered I like the all-malt Michelob better than you) but do not doubt their dedication to the quality of their barley and malt.

  3. grove July 12, 2007 at 3:15 pm #

    This is definitely a road that is worth going down. I cannot say that I have noticed much of a difference between the various base malts that I have used when brewing my beers. Still I cannot say that there are significant differences between Weyermann’s pilsener malt, Muntons Pearl pale malt, Castle’s pilsener malt and Thomas Fawcett’s Maris Otter, all malt types I’ve brewed with recently and all easily obtainable here in Europe. This can be attributed to a lack of focus on my behalf. The reason is most likely that my recipes have been very different and perhaps too complex to let the base malt showcase itself.

    I find this subject very interesting and find your posts about it very interesting. I find the comparison between wine grapes and malt types fascinating. In the future I’ll definitely try to make an effort to try and identify the characteristics of the individual malt types in my own beers. Thanks for writing about it. It is much appreciated.

  4. Stan Hieronymus July 12, 2007 at 3:30 pm #

    grove – you might find this article interesting, although its focus is on DeWolf-Cosyns (since closed).

    For one thing there’s the comparison of the DWC pale and Maris Otter.

    Anyway, the old DWC recipes were said to go to Dingemans – although there was never mention of barley varieties (short-sighted, eh?).

    Also, in case you didn’t know, Castle malts its own pale and pils. Its specialties are all made at Dingemans, and put in Castle bags right at Dingemans.

    I love the flavor of Castle pils although it isn’t as efficient as some others.

  5. Loren July 13, 2007 at 3:55 am #

    All malt Michelob is VERY different than the old stuff. You can actually taste that poundcake sweetness that you get in their Brewmaster’s Reserve (Hellerbock?). I think they did a good job redoing this beer…and it clearly shows.

    As for differences in malt suppliers…you can definitely tell a TF crystal malt from some others as it usually carries an almost melanoiden smoky sharpness to it. To me anyway…but I’ve been told I have a dead tongue…so…


  6. brewer a July 13, 2007 at 5:20 am #

    “This isn’t necessarily realistic for your average small brewery and certainly not for the local brewpub you should be stopping by tonight.”

    Any brewpub that is large enough to have the bonus of a grain silo generally has the option of choosing the specific base 2-row they have it filled with. Now, picking the barley variety for specialty malts or smaller volumes of base malt, sure, you aren’t going to be able to specify that, but a diligent brewer that is willing to possibly spend a little bit more money/lb. probably knows exactly what variety they are making their beers out of.

  7. Stan Hieronymus July 13, 2007 at 5:47 am #


    This is something I (now) intend to make a regular part of ongoing conversations with brewers. Specifying Maris Otter is relatively easily, asking for something like Barke is another matter. Even if a brewpub is getting rotating varieties (one time their pilsner malt is Scarlet, another Barke) then it still behooves them to track the differences.

    Also, you have a silo? There are brewpubs around here operating at a 1,500 a year pace still toting bags of grain.

  8. SteveH July 13, 2007 at 6:33 am #

    Also, you have a silo? There are brewpubs around here operating at a 1,500 a year pace still toting bags of grain.

    The 3 closest to me still bag tote – no silo. Nice to have that luxury.

  9. Lew Bryson July 26, 2007 at 7:37 pm #

    Coming late to this, I’ve been traveling, but…we did a ‘Scotch whisky distillers roundtable’ a few years ago at WhiskyFest, and were surprised to find that almost all of the distillers didn’t give a damn about any malt characteristics but yield. They seemed just as surprised that we would ask.

  10. Stan Hieronymus July 27, 2007 at 5:08 am #

    Dang, Lew, that adds a thought to the mix.

    Guess I’ve looked at too many pretty picture books from Scotland with the floor maltings.

  11. Lew Bryson July 27, 2007 at 5:53 am #

    There are still some floor maltings; saw the one at Balvenie on those travels I mentioned. But even at Balvenie, the floor-malted stuff is only a part of what they use. It’s just gotten so big, with the world export market, that they can’t afford to keep on with the floor maltings.

    The Macallan still requires “a proportion” of Golden Promise, but there just isn’t that much grown. Malt distilleries are also pretty much left with what the brewers want: it’s kind of like trying to find potatoes of a type other than what McDonald’s wants. Brewery malt requirements are much, much larger than whisky distilleries’.

  12. Stan Hieronymus July 27, 2007 at 6:24 am #

    And smaller brewers are left with what larger brewers want …

    But to the other subject – the whole potato thing with McDonald’s doesn’t get nearly the attention beef does. And it should. Really pisses me off.

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