Beer Malt 101: The Different Types of Malt

What are the different types of beer malt?

  1. Base malts
  2. Specialty malts
  3. Kilned malts
  4. Caramel and Crystal malts


When you hear the term malt, what comes to mind are things like malted milkshakes and malt extracts. But when it comes to brewing beer, malt refers to the specific types of malted barley varieties. Lagers, pilsners, porters, stouts — these beverages are made from different types of beer malt. But what are malts, and how does each type of beer malt differ from one to the next?


An Overview of Malt

This term refers to cereal grains (in this case, barley, wheat, and rye) that have been soaked to trigger germination, and dried in a process called ‘malting.’ This process heats the barley, which halts the germination process. This leaves grains that are full of enzymes, which break down the starch in the grains. As a result, fermentable sugars are obtained, which is what brewers used to make beer.

So, now that we have learned what malt is and how it is made, another question presents itself: how does it affect beer? The answer lies in the variance of malt flavors and characteristics.


Base malts

Base malts

Base malts are what make up the largest percentage of malt in most beer recipes, accounting for 60% to 100% of malt content. The reason that this type is used in larger amounts is that they have enough enzymatic activity to ensure that plenty of starch conversion happens in the brewing process.

In short, base malts provide enough fermentable sugars, which is what yeast consumes during beer fermentation. This then determines the alcohol content of the beer. Additionally, it affects the kind of body and flavors that tend to be first noticed upon consuming the beer.

Base malts have several variations that differ in moisture content, potential extract, color, protein content, and enzymatic activity. Because of how many variations can be added to a recipe, many different types of base malts are produced for beer brewing, such as:

  1. Pilsner or Lager malt — Made from barley and used in most pilsner and lager production. This malt produces less color and flavor than others, but this is critical for beers where other flavors and aromas are to be highlighted. As a base, they can impart a more delicate maltiness, moderate body, and substantial mouthfeel when compared to others. It also allows for good foam development and head retention when the beer is served. Ralph’s Spirits & Wines mainly offers beers made from this kind of malt, such as our Corona and Sapporo beers, which are both light and refreshing. The proportion of this type of malt also affects the ‘heaviness’ of the drink. Beers like our Mahou Cinco Estrellas have a more pronounced body and toast-like taste because of the concentration of pilsner malt.
  1. Pale ale malt — Made from barley for most ale-type drinks. Pale ale malts have lower protein content and have a starchier body and taste than pilsner malts. They also give off a darker, more full-bodied flavor with more pronounced malt aromas than pilsner malts. This kind is often used for pale ales, porters, and IPAs — such as our Mahou IPA, which has a medium body and a crisp taste and maltiness to it.
  2. Mild ale malt - Mild ale malts differ from pale ale malts from their drying and kilning temperatures — they’re prepared at much higher heats. As a result, the beer starter (or wort) made from this malt is sweeter and has a deeper brown color.
  3. Wheat malt - Wheat is also used for creating beer malts. It has equal enzymatic power as barley. However, it has fewer tannins and contributes more protein to the beer. This produces foamier beer, containing bread and citrus flavors and a lighter body.
  4. Rye malt - Used for more specific types of beers, such as the German Roggenbier and a few American Pilsners. It has a dry, spicy flavor, and a very light and pale color. These are used more sparingly than other base malts.


Specialty malts

Specialty malts are used to add complexity to the flavor, aroma, and coloring of a beer. They are what sets apart different types and brands on the market. Unlike other malts, they do not need to undergo the mashing process to be added to beer. They are simply steeped into the mixture to release their colors and flavors.

Under this category, there are three types: light-colored malts, which impart a fuller body and deeper color; dry-roasted malts, which give a range of golden, red, and black colors and nutty, burnt sugar flavors; and unmalted barley, which produces sharp and sour notes.


Kilned malts

Kilned malts

A kilned malt is technically a type of specialty malt, but some brewers consider it a category of its own. These are malts that are produced with much higher heating and curing temperatures than base malts. They can also be made by toasting finished base malts in an oven. These have less enzymatic power than base malts and are used in smaller quantities.

The main purpose of kilned malts is to add extra notes and flavor to the finished product. Common types of this malt are biscuit, victory, Munich, and Vienna malt. They are typically used for Oktoberfest-type beers, craft beers, and some pale ales.


Caramel and Crystal malts

Another type of specialty malt that can stand as another category. Caramel and crystal malts are those that are stewed once they are dried. This crystallizes the sugars produced by the malting process, which prevents them from converting into simple sugars in later stages. As a result, the sugars give a fuller, caramel-sweet taste to the beer.

These are used for almost all kinds of ale and some lagers, usually making up about 5% to 25% of their total malt content. Caramel and Crystal malts differ in the heating process they go through before being stewed. Caramel malt refers to those made in both kiln and roaster, while Crystal refers to roaster-produced malts only.


Key Takeaway

The type of beer malt used in the production of beer influences its profile more than any other ingredient. The type, concentration, and mix of malts used in brewing will determine the color, flavor, notes, mouthfeel, body, and aroma of the finished beer. Check out Ralph’s Wines & Spirits’ beer collection here.