What Are Specialty Grains, and How Are They Used ?

In our last blog, we discussed the base malts that are used in brewing. We talked about how they make up the base of the beer, the backbone, and how they affect the overall flavor profile. They aren’t the only grains that are used in brewing your beer, though – specialty grains make up an important component as well.

Specialty grains are used to adjust the beer’s flavor profile and looks even further. Whereas the base malts are used mainly for their fermentable sugars, specialty malts include less in the way of sugars but have a greater influence on the color of the beer. They can add subtle flavors to the beer, or if you want to take it far enough, they can provide a serious change in flavor.

Using Specialty Grains Properly

Compared to up to 4 kilograms of base malts, specialty malts are generally used in units of 200 grams or so. How much you add will change the flavor and color of the beer – the same pale malt base could be used to create a pale ale, red ale, or brown ale, depending on the specialty grain. Add enough, and you can even push towards the porter end of the spectrum.

The other thing about specialty grains is that they don’t have to be mashed to contribute to the beer. Specialty malts should be used more like hops are, steeped in the wort – often in the same types of bags. You don’t want to pulverize them either before dropping them in, and sometimes you might not even want to crush them at all. If you do think they should be crushed to allow more extraction of flavor and color, just run over them once or twice lightly with a rolling pin.

One of the great advantages of the specialty grain is that they can be used with malt extracts or with all-grain brewing. It allows the home brewer who doesn’t have room or time to do all-grain brewing to still have plenty of control over their beer. They can still make their brew unique, instead of following the recipe to the letter.

Types of Specialty Grains

There are plenty of different types of specialty grains, and the list seems to be growing even bigger by the year. Let’s look at some of the more popular specialty grains and what they do:

  • Caramelized Malts – The most common type of malt, these are easy to use, often with mild flavors and mild color profiles. This category includes Crystal Malts and the Cara- variants of regular malts, like Cara-Pils. They can add more color while retaining some of the flavor characteristics of their non-caramelized counterparts. For instance, Munich malts are used in Munich-style lagers, while their caramelized variant, Cara-Munich, is used to provide the same sort of flavor with a darker color, such as in darker bocks and doppelbocks.
  • Biscuit Malt – Well-named, it introduces a cracker-like taste and aroma to the brew. Of the light malts – including the Munich and Pilsen malts – this is one of the darker ones that avoids moving into the brown or black range. It’s a great malt for ESBs and lighter, breadier brews.
  • Black Patent Malt – Most commonly used in stouts and porters, it is the darkest of the malts, and a little bit goes a long way. It can add a sharp bitterness, which must be used in moderation. Black Patent can be used to provide the color of a chocolate malt without introducing the cocoa and coffee flavors.
  • Chocolate Malt – A very descriptive name, this malt provides the look, taste, and aroma of chocolate. It is available in a dark chocolate variant that creates a slightly more bitter taste, and a slightly darker color. Due to the flavoring, this malt is usually only seen in porters and stouts.
    Roasted Barley – The most common of the non-malt specialty grains – a category that includes oats, rye, malted wheat, and corn – this is used quite often in small amounts. It has a color and flavor profile quite similar to the black patent malt, but with more nuttiness.

Experimenting With Specialty Grains

One of the good things about specialty grains is that they are fairly easy to experiment with. A brewer can get a good idea of the flavor and color they can provide by steeping a few grains in an ounce of warm water, or even chewing on the grains as a whole. By changing up the combination in different cups, the brewer can find a good combination without having to brew a great many batches. It’s cheaper and quicker, and it can help the brewer get a starting point. Once they have a starting point, it is easier to refine the recipe later on.

Many people look at hops as being a major flavoring agent in home brews, but specialty grains can contribute just as much, if not more. Experimenting with them, analyzing them, and concentrating on them when altering a recipe can make a huge impact. If you haven’t evaluated the specialty malts you might already be using recently, now may be the time to check out some of the newer types and newer roasts available.