What are the Differences in Base Malts ?

There’s been plenty written about how hops change the flavor profile of a beer, and this is something that has been pushed on craft brew drinkers and home brewers quite hard over the last few years. What doesn’t get pushed hard enough, though, is the effect that malts have on the mash. Lots of home brewers and craft beer fans refer to themselves as “Hopheads,” but when was the last time someone called themselves a “Malt head?”

What do Base Malts Bring to the Table?

Base malts contribute three things to the beer – flavor, color, and fermentable sugars. The flavor that it adds will be the backbone of the beer. The color, meanwhile, will be the base that is added to when specialty malts – which we will cover in our next blog – are used to provide more color. Most importantly, the base malts are where you get the fermentable sugars, which are what the yeast uses to make alcohol.

Types of Base Malts

  • 2 Row Pale Malt – The most common base malt, used in the vast majority of beers, particularly in ales. It is a medium yellow in color, and has only a minor grain flavor. The reason it is so popular is the fact that this creates a fairly blank canvas for using specialty malts, hops, and other flavoring agents.
  • 6 Row Pale Malt – Similar to the 2 Row Pale, this malt is rarely used by home brewers. They tend to have a sharper flavor, while having roughly the same color as the 2 Row Pale. One of the main reasons it has been popular as a crop is that it has more enzymes and is cheaper to grow, making it more efficienct for large batch production but at the loss of flavor.
  • Pale Ale Malt – Essentially the same as 2 Row Pale, the major difference is in the processing of this malt. When malts are processed, they are dried in a kiln. Pale Ale Malts are kilned at a slightly higher temperature than the 2 Row Pale. This makes for a malt that produces a color that is more amber, making it a top base for amber ales, mild ales, and Extra Special Bitters. It also provides a bready, slightly sweet flavor for the backbone of a beer.
  • Pilsen Malt – The lightest base malt, in terms of color, this malt also lends a thinner, crisper taste to the beer it is used in. As you can figure out from the name, it is used almost exclusively for European Pilsners. In fact, the color and taste is so light, a grain bill of less than 80% pilsen malts is generally seen as a waste, as it is overpowered easily. Pilsen malt isn’t cheap, either, so if you see a recipe calling for a limited amount of Pilsen malt, you can be comfortable substituting 2 Row Pale.
  • Vienna Malt – Darker than the previously mentioned malts, it will be nutty and sweet in flavor – it is most commonly used in the brewing of Oktoberfest beers and non-pilsner German lagers, but is rarely a major part of the grain bill. This is because its flavors can be a bit overwhelming when only Vienna is used. Even in Vienna lagers, this malt will only make up around 30% of the grain bill.
  • Munich Malt – The darkest malt available, it is the backbone of dark beers. It comes with toastiness and maltiness as far as flavoring goes, making it a key component in dark German lagers such as dunkels and bocks. It’s also a welcome addition to some of the darker ales, providing color and a roasty quality.

These six malts can provide the starting point for almost any beer you would be interested in brewing. Realizing that not all base malts are the same is the way to create better, more complex beers. You need to know what you are using and why. Not only will this improve your beer, it will help you improve and develop as a brewer. Getting control of your malts and knowing what they do may also help you to revisit some past recipes and help them to evolve.