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Beer Grains & Malt: The Complete Guide For Homebrewers

By Dan Bies 

As brewing enthusiasts we are all aware of the importance of malt in beer, it provides flavors, color, body, and is the main food source for the yeasts.  My name is Dan Bies, I’ve been a Pilot Brewer and Technical Representative at Briess for 15 years, and this is my perspective on all things Malt. 

guide to grain and malt for brewing

What is the Difference Between Extract and All-Grain Brewing?

All-grain and extract brewing differ in how the wort is prepared.  Extract, also known as Concentrated Brewers Wort, is made the same way most brewers make wort, by mashing grains in hot water, separating the sweet liquid from the solid grain remnants in a lauter tun, and then boiling the liquid wort.  Brewers will add hops to the wort at this point, but most extract manufacturers do not, instead the boiled wort is sent through a vacuum-evaporator which utilizes low-pressure low-temperature boiling to gently remove most of the water making a stable syrup, in doing so they concentrate the liquid 5-7 times the strength of normal wort.


What is All-Grain Brewing?

All-grain brewing is brewing without malt extracts.  However, a significant proportion of people that consider themselves all-grain brewers will use malt extracts to increase their fermentable sugars in high alcohol brewing.


What is Extract Brewing?

Extract brewing is brewing where extract is used to obtain a significant portion of the dissolved sugars in the brewing process.  Beer can be made with just malt extract and no grains, but many of the recipes and brewing kits available to homebrewers contain both.


Should I Start with All-Grain Brewing?

I think the better question is, “who should start with all-grain brewing?” Are you curious about brewing but don’t know how much time and money you want to invest into this hobby… then extract.  Do you obsess over details and value full control… then you may want to jump into all-grain.  If you start with extract brewing your investments in equipment will still be valuable if you decide to move to all-grain.  All-grain allows more flavor options from malt, but even in extract brewing there are a wide variety of flavors from yeasts, hops, and spices that allow a wide creative range.


Advantages of All-Grain Brewing

All-grain brewing gives the brewer the ability to use the full range of malts and grains available.  It also allows for adjustments to the mashing process, the brewer has the ability to affect fermentability and body by changing mash parameters, or develop unique flavors though decoction mashing.  All-grain brewing places the wort preparation in the brewer’s hands and allows for the freshest malt character possible.


What Equipment Do I Need for All-Grain Brewing?

The standard all-grain brewing system allows for good heat retention during mashing and easy separation of the wort from the grain, a basic version would be an insulated container with a spigot and a false bottom to hold the grain particles back when collecting the liquid.  Whether extract or all-grain, all brewing requires a heated kettle for boiling, gear to chill the boiled wort, and a container that can be fitted with an airlock for fermentation.

Part 1: Grain

What are the Different Types of Grain?

Most of the grains used in brewing are from malted barley but there is also a wide range of different malted and sprouted grains available to brewers, as well as raw and flaked grains. Other types of grain used for malt are wheat, rye and, oats. 



Do I Need a Grain Mill?

Yes. Grains should be milled prior to mashing to get the full benefit from them.  Malt is best milled in a roller mill designed to crush the kernels in a manner that exposes the starchy interior but preserves the husk’s shape and allows for easy channeling of the liquid from the grains when it comes time to separate the wort. 


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Part 2: Malt

What is Malt?

Malt is any grain that has been 1) steeped in water to “wake up” the seed and initiate growth, 2) allowed to grow in a moist room until the center of the seed is softened, and 3) dried to create a flavorful low moisture kernel that can be stored without spoiling.



Different Types of Malt

Malt types are most generally differentiated by the raw material and method of drying.  The most common malts are made from barley and are typically dried on a kiln or roaster.  Kilned malts are further differentiated by the intensity of kilning and will determine if a malt is a Pilsen, Pale Ale, Munich, etc., and frequently by barley variety (Synergy, Maris Otter, Golden Promise, etc.)   Roasted malts can be further differentiated by the condition of the malt going into the roaster.  Malts that have been germinated but not kilned will become caramel malt, while kilned malts that are roasted become dry roasted malts, these vary in color from red to dark-black hues and their flavor varies from toasty-nutty to coffee-chocolate flavors.


Base Malts

Base malts are generally referred to as the enzymatic malts that make up most of the grist bill, they will provide the bulk of fermentable sugars in most beer styles.


Specialty Malts

Specialty malts are malts that are typically used in smaller quantities for their flavor, color, or functional benefits to beer.


Roasted Malts

Caramel & Crystal Malts

Caramel malts that are produced on a kiln have a crystalized interior.  These malts are made with grains that are actively germinating (growing), often called green malt.  This green malt is heated in a roaster to a temperature where the kernel’s enzymes will break the starch down to simple sugars.  Once a large amount of sugar is formed the roaster temperature is increased causing the sugars to caramelize resulting in red color tones, and cooked sugar and candy flavors.


Dry Roasted Malts

These products start with kilned malts, which contain very little moisture, and are therefore termed dry roasting malts.   Lightly dry roasted malt will exhibit red-hues and a toasted-nutty character, as more intense heat is applied the color tones become brown and the flavors are expressive of cocoa and coffee.


Other Malts

Other notable malt types are smoked malts, acidulated malts, and dextrin malts.  Each of these are made similarly to the methods described above but with various processing tweaks, such as drying with wood smoke, promoting lactic acid formation in germination, or changing process conditions to increase dextrin content. Dextrin malts also produce foam in beer. 


Adjunct Grains

Flaked grains or grain-based syrups are the most common grain adjuncts used in brewing.   Flaking is a process that makes starches accessible to malt enzymes. Flaked grains can be mashed as a portion of the grist and will contribute fermentable sugars and grainy flavor.  Syrups have the benefit of not having to be mashed, many commercially available grain-based syrups are clarified to be absent of color and flavor.  Adjuncts are mainly used to boost alcohol content and lighten the body.


How Much Malt Does It Take To Make A Gallon Of Beer?

A 5.0% ABV beer will require about 1.4-2.0 pounds of grain per gallon of beer.  

Final Thoughts 

The large variety of malt and grains can be intimidating at first but if you are willing to experiment you will quickly develop a feel for how they are used and what flavors are available.  More than 15 years since I first started brewing, I’m still benefiting from what I learned in my early failures; keeping me humble and making me appreciate great beer even more.


At Briess, Dan is responsible for brewing and R&D projects, including new product development and process improvement. Dan manages the pilot brewing and pilot plant operations and commercialization of new products in the extract plant. He regularly helps formulate recipes for home and craft brewers and has published articles, posters and given presentations in support of the craft brewing industry.

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