Malt – An old familiar friend we really don’t know very well

There’s an old saying in Germany that literally translates to “God save hops and malt”. It epitomises Bavarians’ steadfastness, religious faith, and love of good company. It’s also convenient proverbial wisdom to pull out and suggest a certain level of knowledge about beer – whether at the fair, in the pub, or as a lead into a blog post. But as is the case with popular bywords of the regulars’ table, there’s often not much real knowledge behind the words.


Now, my Visit to a Hallertau hops farm made me quite familiar with hops’ role in brewing and I am fairly confident that I know a bit more about hops than the average pub regular. But malt is a different story. What is this stuff that so many Bavarians pray to God to preserve?

The first – and only – thing that comes to my mind is barley. For such an important ingredient, I find I really don’t know much about it at all.


Fortunately, there are people who really do know a lot about malt. Hans Lechner is one of them. He recently gave me a crash course on the subject. He has been in the barley and malt industry for over 15 years, currently as head of sales at a medium-sized family-owned business. And because he was in hops before that, he is what you might call an expert in the raw materials of beer-making.

Before our chat, I did know that malt isn’t a grain that grows in fields alongside wheat, barley, and rye. It also turns out that my instinctive association of malt with barley was correct. As Hans Lechner explains, “In Germany, we make malt from two-rowed spring malting barley. Occasionally, a customer will request malt made from a winter-sown variety of two-rowed malting barley.” Malt made from winter barley is usually mixed into spring-barley malt – for example, if the spring barley’s protein content would otherwise be too low. I should point out that there is a difference between malting barley and the barley grown as feed for livestock. While the latter is fertilized and sprayed with various agricultural chemicals to ensure higher yields, farmers growing malting barley have a whole different set of priorities. Ideally, malting barley will have protein content of just under 11.5%. It also has to meet food safety standards. Neither of these requirements fits well with chemical fertilisers.

How barley becomes malt

Malting barley contains proteins and enzymes, but not quite enough for brewing beer. So, the barley is soaked and germinated to activate enzymes. That’s malting in a nutshell. In the case of traditional, pale malt, the details look like this:

The cleaned barley kernels are soaked in water for one or two days, then drained and allowed to germinate. After about six days, the sprouted barley is dried in a kiln for another day or two to stop the enzymes and halt the germination process. At this point, the malt can be stored in a silo until the brewer is ready to use it. “Back in the old days, breweries had their own malthouses attached. But because the process is complex and expensive, they’ve moved away from doing their own malting. Now, almost all malt is bought ready-made,” adds Lechner. Only a few breweries even still buy their barley from rural trading companies or local farmers and have it malted on commission. Rural trading companies face many challenges, like strict rules and the risk of poor harvests. Meanwhile, big wholesalers dealing in ready-made malt have the financial strength to ride out speculative trading and poor harvests.

Business is business

So, the malt industry is far less idyllic than I had imagined – or hoped. So much for those serene, pastoral images. Malt hasn’t been a seasonal business for ages and harvest times now have little to do with malt sales. “These days malt is sold year-round and often ordered as far as two years out.” Why is that, you ask? The price of malting barley follows wheat prices, and wheat is a listed commodity. So, to some extent, the price of malting barley is determined on the commodity exchanges of Chicago and Paris. “But,” says Hans Lechner, “there are some buyers out there who are interested in more than price – who want to buy regional products and who value service and reliability.” Hearing that, I feel a little bit better.

So, where does beer fit in?

Breweries get their malt in the form of malt extract. At the brewery, the malt extract is crushed and added to the mash tun. Of course, all malts are not equal. Like other raw materials, malt comes in many varieties, which differ in colour and aroma. And that’s why we can brew so many different kinds of beer. But that is a topic for another post.

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