STABROEK/BELOEIL - Thanks to the surging popularity of beers made using exotic aroma hops, that ingredient is very much in the news in the brewing world. You could almost be forgiven for forgetting the importance of malt in determining the color, aroma and taste of the beer.
You only have to visit a brewery for an instant reminder. The characteristic ‘brewery odor’ is first and foremost the smell of heated malt.
So, what exactly is malt? Malt is grain that has sprouted and then dried. It is a vital ingredient in beer, and also in jenever and whisky.
During the malting process (traditionally in a malt house or maltings) some of the starch in the grain is converted into fermentable sugars.
As brewing continues, more of the starch turns into sugars and then, during fermentation, the sugars are converted into alcohol.
Barley is the most commonly malted grain. Its leaf and root sprouts are better protected by the chaff (the protective husk around the grain) than is the case for other grains. There is a large variety of malts on the market: pils malt, pale ale malt, wheat malt, caramel malt, colored malt (for amber beer), roast wheat malt, chocolate, malt, roast bitter malt...
Most breweries used to have their own malt houses. You’ll often see the tall maltings chimneys on older brewery buildings around Belgium.
However, the production of malt has now turned into a very specialized business. Industrial maltings have been set up, producing mainly for the major pils breweries.
A handful of malt houses focus on the production of specialty malts, following specifications from the brewery to the letter. The two main ones still operating in Belgium are Mouterij Dingemans en Malterie de Beloeil.
The least complicated of the malting processes is that of turning barley into pils malt. The barley is stored in silos and cleaned thoroughly. Alien grains are removed as well as any broken seeds. The barley that’s good enough for brewing is then placed in steeping basins where regular soakings get the grains’ moisture content up from around 15% to about 45%. The grain is then transferred to the sprouting chamber.
Water and purified air is piped in to create the ideal environment for sprouting. The mix is turned regularly to air it and to prevent the barley clumping together.
During the sprouting process, insoluble protein and starch molecules turn into their soluble versions.
“We have to interrupt the natural sprouting process at exactly the right moment,” says Karl Dingemans of the maltings of the same name, in Stabroek near Antwerp.
The resulting ‘green malt’ is then transported to the oast house to dry out. “Oasting is the process of the malt drying out on the ‘ast’, or drying floor,” Karl explains.
“We are professionals so we know the exact time the sprouted barley has to remain on the drying floor. This process determines the color and the taste of the beer that the malt goes in to.
The sprouts are removed immediately after drying and used in the production of cattle feed. The finished malt is stored in silos and transported, usually in bulk, to the breweries.”
To produce dark malts, caramel malts for example, the green malt is transferred immediately into a roasting drum – a process not dissimilar to roasting coffee beans. The malter will see, feel and taste the malt to determine when it is ready.
In stout brewing, for example, the beer’s bitterness derives from roasted malts. This requires a very dark, almost charred malt with a taste not unlike coffee.
Without a ‘feeling’ for malt, the subtle flavors that are the trademark of a good beer will simply never be achieved. To know beer one needs to learn to understand malt.
The aromas and colors of the roast malt come from a chemical reaction between proteins and sugars that occurs when the malt is heated.
Malting is an art, the malter needs both scientific knowledge and years of experience and intuition to master his craft perfectly.
He observes, feels, tastes and learns. “In this trade you never stop learning,” Karl Dingemans says.
Do I detect the voice of a brewer? Yes, indeed – Karl is a brewing college graduate. And as we all know: once a brewer always a brewer.
Both Mouterij Dingemans in the north and Malterie de Beloeil in southern Belgium are masters of specialty malts. Dingemans produces around 30,000 tonnes per-year and is enjoying steady growth thanks to exports to the USA, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Australia, among other countries.
Pils malt still accounts for 40% of production, but Dingemans is experiencing a growing demand for different malts from its 25-strong range, including organic malts.
These days there are microbreweries, both in Belgium and abroad, that conduct regular experiments with different types of malt.
These brewers will seek out the advice of a malter as they develop new beers.
Dingemans malt house is also benefiting from the success of Belgian beers around the world. “We take pride in the fact that we supply malt to all of the Trappist breweries and that many Belgian reference beers are brewed using out malts,” says Karl Dingemans.
“We also engage in development work, although we don’t shout it from the roofs. For example, we are contributing to the development of new malt varieties that contain less protein. When we evaluate a malt we will use as many as 20 different parameters.
In the end, the brewer will select the malt he uses on the basis of the criteria that he feels are most important for his beer.
The range we offer is geared as much as possible towards meeting the demands of the brewer.
We have to take into account the quality of the raw ingredients, which will certainly be different from season to season.
We have to adjust our sprouting calendar, we may have to buy from growers in different regions and at different times of the year, etc. After all, you are working with a natural product.”
The malter cannot skimp on time if he wants the right result. The barley will be left to sprout for five to five-and-a-half days; steep for around 30 hours, and will spend one to one-and-a-half days in the drying room. Dark malts will then spend up to three hours in the roasting drum at 125°C. Just imagine that lovely aroma.