Malt of the earth: what’s the most important ingredient in beer?

A Warminster maltings malt sack

I look deep into my pint glass to look back at the history of beer malts, uncovering the ancient skills of soaking and roasting grain into malted barley and meet the people pioneering colourful new malts for the ever-demanding beer drinker

Ask most people the constituents of beer and they’ll most likely say “water”, “yeast” and, at a push, “hops”. But in most cases, when you inhale the aroma of a fresh pint at your local, like the bouquet of a good wine, and get those heady notes of fruit, caramel, nuts, coffee and maybe even the fug of smoke – it’s malt that’s the master of those unique flavour profiles.

“It still amazes me how few people know about malt in beer,” says Euan Macpherson, outgoing chairman of the Maltsters’ Association of Great Britain (MAGB). “The hop industry has done an amazing job promoting different hops in beers and yet really the hop is just the lipstick: it simply tarts the beer up! Malt on the other hand gives the alcohol, the sweetness and the body.”

Indeed at one time, Britain would have had a generous sprinkling of maltings, and while only a few of these traditional floor maltings now exist (replaced by stainless steel monoliths), there remains a clutch of brewers – and scientists – innovating brewing malts and bringing “the invisible skills” of the maltster back to the bar with styles not seen since Victorian times.

Raising the barley

At first glance, there seems little to distinguish a corn of barley and a kernel of malt but all becomes clear when you take a bite. While barleycorn is hard and starchy, the malted barley is swollen with natural sugars that have been formed during the malting process – and it is the skill of the individual maltster during the steeping (soaking) and kilning (drying) process that bestows the different colour and flavour characteristics on the malt.

Up until the 1960s, the grain would have been spread out on a floor malting after steeping, and raked by hand to encourage germination, and to dissipate heat.

According to Amber Patrick, writing in the Maltings in England report for English Heritage, there are references to malt being produced in England since the 11th century, first in domestic ovens and then in purpose built malthouses, and their specialist maltsters would have been seen in almost every market town, particular in the East and South of England, which boasted the free-draining soil and drier climate that barley craves.

As MD of Crisp Malting Group, the only privately owned malting company in England, based in Fakenham, Norfolk, Macpherson also operates one of the few remaining traditional floor maltings in the world, established in 1870.

“The whole process is trying to mimic the natural process that begins in spring, when the barley germinates and begins to turn the enzymes it has stored into sugar,” says Macpherson. “You steep in water at the right temperature to start the germination process and then dry in a kiln to caramelize slightly. “

While floor malting declined once mechanisation made it possible to make malt faster and more cheaply, the resurrection of the craft brewing industry has allowed for traditional floor maltings to take root again.

“In modern plants the kiln will turn around 250 tonnes (the equivalent of 3.5 million pints of beer), but in a floor kiln like ours it’s 17 tonnes,” says Macpherson. “But in my mind, it’s worth waiting for – it’s the ultimate slow food and results in a superior malt that brewers – who want traditionally crafted beers with natural ingredients – are prepared to pay a premium for.”

Winning streak

Indeed, choose the right malted barley for your beer and you could be on to a winner. Of the 14 Campaign for Real Ale’s ‘Champion Beers of Britain’ – which range from the dark allure of Mighty Oak’s Oscar Wilde to the gentle roundness of Hobson’s Mild – nine have been made from the ‘Maris Otter’ barley. Though its name and profile – “a 47-year-old, descended from Procter and Pioneer” – might make it sound like a member of the landed gentry, in fact this type of barley has become a mainstay of the regional cask ale brewing network, and widely recognised across the brewing world.

Robin Appel, grain merchant and owner of Warminster Maltings, the oldest working maltings in Britain – who is one of the official custodians of Maris Otter and holds the license to maintain the variety – says the key to its success is consistency.

“Wild barleys will give you a completely different malt every time and what brewers are after is that consistency of product, an outstanding flavour profile that makes a wonderful beer time after time,” he says. “Maris Otter offers this and allows brewers to have ‘terrior’: malt from a known variety and a known farm, and beer that tells a story.”

But not all brewers are so easily convinced. “Persuading brewers to use Maris Otter remains an uphill task,” adds Appel “The more industrial brewers resist it because they want cheap and cheerful malts that save them lots of money – even though this kind of malt represents pennies on a pint of beer – and many of the craft brewers feel that all malts taste the same.”

Fullers head brewer John Keeling is one such brewer. “We don’t feel there’s a difference between barley varieties,” he says. “Instead, the differences come from the kind of growing season, the yeast fermentation, whether or not the malt was floor malted or drum malted, the skill of the maltster etc. It’s all biology at the end of the day and you can never have absolute certainty or consistency. And why would you want to? I want people to recognise London Pride when they go to the bar but I’m happy if one year it is maltier, or fruitier – it’s that dialogue that makes a great drink. It’s like seeing your best friend has had a hair cut: it’s still your best friend with the same personality, just subtly different.”

Bere and now

But with an 80-year history of barley innovation, Britain is also leading the way when it comes to experimenting with other, even older varieties.

“Maris Otter has cult following – and definitely deserves its place in the brewing industry – but whether or not it has superior flavour to other barleys is difficult to prove,” says Dr Chris Ridout, a research scientist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, which stores seeds for 10,000 current and historic barley varieties.

Ridout and his team have received £250,000 funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to trial heritage barley variety ‘Chevallier’ for its commercial potential. And dominating beer and whisky production for nearly 100 years (it’s even said the bottle of whisky found in Captain Scott’s Antarctic cabin was made Chevallier), if successful, the trials will enable beer drinkers to taste beers that were once popular in Victorian Britain.

“Not many people know about malt, or that there’s even barley in beer, but using Chevallier it’s possible we can bring back authentic flavours that have been long forgotten,” says Ridout. “And these ‘conservation varieties’ are a way of keeping a little piece of history alive.”

What’s more, at Britain’s most northerly brewery, Valhalla in Unst, Shetland, brewer Sonny Priest has gone one step further, brewing a beer from the aptly named ‘Bere’ barley that was brought over by the Vikings.

“Bere has been grown in the north of Scotland for at least a thousand years, possibly back to 3,500BC, because it could reliably produce a grain crop under our special (and challenging!) growing conditions,” says Dr Peter Martin, director of the Agronomy Institute at Orkney College, who supplied the bere malt to Valhalla in 2005, as well the Isle of Arran and Bruichladdich Distilleries. “Apart from being used directly for brewing in Norse and medieval times, malt was also very important as a means of paying taxes or land rents in Orkney, and there is well-documented evidence for the importance of bere to the early Scottish distilling industry, especially in the Highlands.

“The decline in Bere came about due to the introduction of modern varieties with higher grain yields, and cheap imports, but it is still cultivated today for flour (beremeal), beer and whisky and represents an extremely important part of Scotland’s agricultural heritage.”

 Flavour of the future

So while some brewers believe that all barleys are equal, the evidence suggests that many can bring something a little extra special to a brew.

In 2007, Robin Appel was determined to put this to the test with a tasting session that compared eight different barley varieties – Maris Otter, Flagon, Pearl, Cellar, Cocktail, Optic, Tipple and Westminster – in eight specially brewed beers, suggesting that “if winemakers could demonstrate the differences between Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc; and hop growers could define the peculiarities of Fuggles, Goldings and Boadicea, wasn’t it about time our maltsters sought to add value and individuality to Britain’s home-grown barley varieties”?

The results were a revelation to many, including Tim Hampson, chairman of the British Guild of Beer Writers, who wrote that “each variety is different from its peers: while some had a soft, rounded flavour with a sweet finish; others were robust and nutty; there were traces of mustard in one, while another had hints of biscuit.”

Macpherson agrees. “Malt is natural, sweet, wholesome and imparts a multitude of characteristics to beer,” he says. “Without malt, beer and whisky simply couldn’t be produced – and yet it remains as an almost unknown ingredient to many.”

But with Macpherson and maltsters like him coming up with oat malts for velvety beers, dark crystal malts for sweet caramel bitters, roasted rye malts for Bavarian-style beers, and even malts for reducing haze, who knows what your next pint might taste or look like.

 

First published in Great British Food

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