If hops are beer’s lead guitarist, then malt is the bass player – in the background, laying down the foundation while the hops show off.
As a canny Beertown reader, you can probably name a few different hop varieties, but malts? Malts simply range from pale to dark, and the colour is a good indication of the flavour, right?
Not quite. Colour is just one dimension, and Gladfield Malt’s Doug Michael says there are many other dimensions to malt.
“You’ve got colour, but you’ve got to look at the chemistry of it. Malt’s a living thing with different ratios of fermentable vs unfermentable sugars. The colours come from the Maillard reaction, which is the reaction between the sugars and the proteins. If you produce a different set of sugars it will react differently. So you get different colours and different flavours, and you get it reacting differently in the beers as well.
“There are 12 variables that we measure, but at the same time there’s probably an infinite amount of subjective measurements in aroma or other factors we can change – is it bready or grainy or toasty? – and we don’t measure those.”
Those variables are the results of decisions made at the different stages of malting: steeping, germination, kilning and roasting.
Steeping soaks the barley grains and triggers germination. This is basically the first step in fermentation – the starches start to convert to fermentable sugars. The grains begin to sprout, and then germination is stopped in the kilns. When the malt is dry enough the temperature is raised to create different malts. Some are then roasted for more intensely flavoured speciality malts. All up, Gladfield produces 28 different malt types from the same barley.
Last year Gladfield introduced a new specialty malt called Supernova. Doug says the aim was to create a new malt that was an improvement on traditional crystal malts, and this was achieved by a unique production process.
“We wanted to create something that can balance out those hops without producing that carameliness that you get with crystal malt. Then we realised it could also substitute for other speciality malts like biscuit and Munich malts, because it also can create that flavour profile as well.
“We’ve used a special process in the roaster. We’ve roasted it over a very slow period and created a malt that’s going to ferment out more, so you don’t have too much of that sweetness that you get with crystal malts. This one malt simplifies the malt bill, especially for pale ales and amber ales.”
And just like a good solid bassline, a well-constructed malt bill allows other flavours to work in combination. Even the hoppiest beers need supporting malts to cushion the hops impact.
“There’s a difference between a ‘malt cushion’ and a malt-driven beer”, says Gladfield Malt’s Gabi Michael. “A malt cushion lets you drink, say, a triple IPA, and you’re not going to be knocked out by the bitterness and the aroma. You can have the hop character carry all the way through, and right at the end the malt rounds it off and you can have another mouthful. The malt profile is not so much about what malts you use, but about how you use it.”