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Malt: The Soul of Beer

Two beers, some brats, bread, and two bottles of Karamalz. Those were the essential components of dinner at my house growing up. I don’t know if it was nature or nurture but my brother and I seem to have adapted our beverage choices to our parents’. And though our parents wanted us to share their love of beer, they didn’t want to get in trouble with social services. So, we drank Karamalz, a non-alcoholic malt beverage. And like so many childhood memories, it left a lasting impression.

I was reminded just a couple of weeks ago at Braukunst Live that it’s the malty beers that really never cease to surprise and inspire me. So, I was especially excited about an opportunity to learn more about malt from Hans Lechner. As an old hand in the hops and malt industry, he knows a lot about malt and the role it plays in beer.


“Malt is the soul of beer.”

That’s how our conversation started. And somehow the comment made me feel very glad for malt. Hops has always seemed to be winning the “most popular ingredient” contest. Its aroma, vibrant green cones, and catchy name definitely make it a bit easier to market.

But malt is the soul of beer – not hops! Hans Lechner explains, “It influences all of a beer’s characteristics. Head (foam), shelf life, colour, aroma, and flavour all depend on malt. You can make any variety of different beers just by using different malts.”

Despite their differences, most beers have the same base. Pale barley malt, also known as Pilsner malt, gives pale beers their character and colour and is used as a base for almost all beer. Vienna malt is a bit darker and more “golden” than Pilsner malt. It gives festival beers their stronger colour and malty aroma and, as it happens, was originally used mostly in Vienna. Colour and aroma become even more intense when you add Munich malt, which has a really strong malty aroma and gives dark beer its trademark flavour. Until the early part of the last century, dark beers dominated the brewing landscape in “Old Bavaria” – and they were definitely dark.

An expert can identify different malts fairly quickly by their colour. So where does the colour come from? “The colours and malt types depend on how long the malt is kilned.” Most malts originally came from two-rowed spring malting barley – so the strain of barley isn’t necessarily responsible for the colour. Wheat malt is a little different, of course. As the name suggests, it’s made from wheat, not barley. (A brief aside: On the face of it, using wheat malt to brew beer is in conflict with Germany’s original 1516 Purity Law. But later regulations established that wheat malt is in no way inferior to barley malt in terms of quality and therefore may be used for top-fermented beers.)

Apart from the traditional base malts, there are also many specialty malts that can be added in. One of these is caramalt, with the caramel/toffee flavour that I loved so much as a kid. Another specialty malt is smoked malt. Ever wondered (as I have) where smoked beer (Rauchbier) gets its characteristic flavour? The answer is malt that’s dried over an open fire.

Malt provides quite a bit of room for creativity in the brewing process – without the need for additional flavourings or other ingredients that wouldn’t pass Purity Law muster. Hans Lechner thinks so too, and is very glad to see smaller, regional brewers making more of the characteristics of different malts and using local and regional malts. And while he’s telling me all about the myriad flavours, heads, and colours that can be conjured up with malt, I am more and more convinced that malt really is the soul of beer.

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