Malted vs Unmalted: Considering the Homebrewing Dilemma

When it comes to beer and what makes up a beer, you have probably heard the word “malt” more often than you hear malted barley, malted wheat, or other specific grains. Malted grains are a key ingredient of beer and, next to water, make up the bulk of a beer’s recipe.

As well as barley, many brewers in other parts of the world use other malted grains such as wheat, corn, rye, and oats, but can you use unmalted grains to brew beer?

Yes, of course, you can. Malted grains and unmalted grains are both used in brewing beer today, but there can be significant differences in the beers which are produced by each type of grain.

Let’s take a look at exactly what a malted grain is, and what benefits you may get from mixing it up a bit by adding unmalted grains to your brew. Unmalted grains are much cheaper and much more widely available, so why wouldn’t brewers use them?

What Is Malt?

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To put it quite simply, malted grains are cereal grains that have gone through a process of malting.

Malt is typically made from barley, but other grains such as wheat, rye, and corn can also be malted. The malting process involves three basic steps: steeping, germination, and kilning. Malting develops diastatic enzymes, which help with the conversion of starches into sugar during the brewing process.

In the first step, the grains are soaked in water for a period of time, usually around 48 hours. During this time, the grain absorbs water and begins to sprout. The water is then drained and the grain is spread out to allow air to circulate.

During the second step, the grain begins to germinate, which means that the enzymes inside the grain begin to break down the starches in the grain into sugars. This is done by the activation of vital enzymes such as amylase and protease. These enzymes are naturally present in the grain, but they are activated by the malting process.

In the final step, the grain is kilned, which stops the germination process and dries the grain. The temperature and time of kilning can affect the flavor and color of the malt. Lightly kilned malts such as Pilsner malt are light in color and have a mild flavor, while heavily kilned malts such as Chocolate malt are dark in color and have a rich, roasty flavor.

The malted grains are then crushed to create a fine powder called grist. This grist is then mixed with water in a process called mashing. During mashing, the enzymes in the malted grains break down the starches into fermentable sugars, which are then extracted into the wort. The wort is then boiled with hops and fermented with yeast to create beer.

The Four Basic Types of Malt

spikelets of wheat
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Not all malts are the same, however. You can break down the malts into four different categories which occur after the kilning. It can depend on the length of time the malt was kilned, the temperature at which it was kilned, and the moisture level during kilning.

The four basic categories are Base malts, Crystal or Caramel malts, Toasted malts, and Roasted malts. Each type of malt will impact the flavor, color, body, and mouthfeel of a beer.

Base Malts

Base malts are the lightest colored of the brewing malts as they undergo a shorter kilning time at lower temperatures. Because high-temperature kilning will eventually destroy the grain starches and denatures the diastatic enzymes, lower temperatures in kilning allow Base malts to retain the highest level of potential sugars and the highest degree of that all-important diastatic power that we mentioned earlier.

Base malts contribute a large amount of sugar to the beer and can help with the conversion of starches from other grains with lower diastatic power. For this reason, Base malts tend to make up the bulk of most beer’s grain bills, normally at least 85%.

Due to the higher enzyme content of both barley and wheat, most base grains will be made from these two prime brewing ingredients.

Common Base malts include Pilsner malt, Pale Ale malt, Munich malt, and Vienna malt. Base malts will be the source of most of the sugars in a beer and can impart a soft, grainy, sweetness to the finished beer. Munich and Vienna malts tend to be kilned at slightly higher temperatures for a darker color and toastier flavor.

Beer styles that usually only contain Base malts include many German beers (remember the Purity Laws!) such as Pilsner, Munich, Dunkel, and Märzen style lagers.

Caramel or Crystal Malts

Often called specialty malts, Caramel and Crystal are actually two names for the same type of malt. Crystal is the English version while Caramel is the American style.

To create the Caramel malts the Green malt is moved to a roaster after the germination process instead of being kiln-dried, where the grains are heated to between 150º and 158º Fahrenheit, a temperature at which some certain diastatic enzymes are activated. These enzymes then convert the starches into sugar inside the actual grains leaving them in a semi-liquid state. After this conversion has taken place, the grains will then be roasted at higher temperatures between 220 and 320º according to the amounts of flavor and color desired.

The Maillard reaction darkens the grains while the sugars also go through caramelization. The malt color is described by degrees Lovibond, named after the inventor of an early method of measuring the color of beer. In Europe, they tend to use the EBC color grading system developed by the European Brewing Convention and the Institute of Brewing.

Caramel malts are identified by their Lovibond rating whereas Crystal malts normally use the European EBC or SRM color scale. In both reference scales a lower number designates lighter grains, with higher numbers conversely representing darker grains. Caramel malts range for 10ºL to Carmel 120ºL and Special B 150ºL.

Beers that predominantly use Caramel or Crystal malts include American Amber Ales, English Bitters, and Scottish Ales.

Toasted Malts

Toasted malts are malts that are made by kilning fully dried Base malts at higher temperatures up to 335º Fahrenheit. The higher temperatures increase the Maillard reaction but with less caramelization of the sugars, giving the grains a medium to dark brown color and toasty, nutty, or biscuit-like flavors. Examples of Toasted malts are Amber malt, Brown malt, Victory malt, and Aromatic malt.

Toasted malts are often used for color in Brown Ales and to add malt complexity to American Pale Ales or Bocks.

Roasted Malts

Now we are talking about the big guns of malts. Roasted malts are the darkest of all malts and feature the most intense flavors. They are the malts that give Stouts and Porters their jet-black color and robust, roasty flavors.

To produce Roasted malt the Green malt is first kilned at temperatures uptown 165ºF with low moisture. Once the grains are fully dried, the temperature is slowly raised to between 420º and 480º. The process causes some caramelization but most of the color and flavor comes from the Maillard reaction. As the temperatures go higher there is the potential for the grains to burn so they are sprayed lightly with water to prevent scorching.

The high temperatures give these malts intense chocolate, coffee, or roasted flavors which are so strong that a little goes a long way. Roasted grains typically only make up a small percentage of the grain bill in any beer, around 3% to 5%. Some Stouts and Porters may use higher amounts. Smaller amounts can be used to darken the beer color with minimal effect on the flavor.

Roasted grains include Black Patent malt, Chocolate malt, and Weyermann Carafa. ironically one of the most common roasted grains is not malt at all but is made by actually roasting raw barley.

The most common beers you will find using Roasted malts include Stouts and Porters but they are often used in very small amounts in Scottish Ales and Brown Ales.

How Does Malt Affect Beer?

The largest component of malt is sugar, more specifically maltose, which can greatly influence your beer profile.

The structure of the sugars inside your malt will define the color, flavor, and aroma of your beer. Crystal malts can produce a flavor and aroma which is similar to toffee, buttery, dark fruit, or even raisin-like.

Malts that have been dried and then placed into the kin would be Toasted malts with the Maillard reaction producing caramel, toasty flavors.

If the dried malts are subjected to even higher temperatures this will combine both Maillard and caramelization for Roasted malts with flavors similar to chocolate or coffee.

Maillard and caramelization processes will also affect the color of your finished beer. Longer heating time results in a darker color, while a shorter heating time produces lighter shades.

Why Use Unmalted Grains?

Considering all the benefits malted grains give to a finished beer, you may be wondering why anybody would use unmalted grains in brewing. Unmalted barley won’t taste significantly different from malted barley and the same can be said for unmalted wheat too.

While it’s true unmalted barley may give your beer a slightly bready flavor, it’s nothing remarkably different from the malted variety. Try a 100% unmalted beer to see whether you think the difference is that noticeable.

Perhaps the main reason brewers use unmalted grains is the lower cost and wider availability of the raw versions of cereal grains. You can buy unmalted grain in bulk quantities at a fraction of the cost of its malted versions.

Plus, grain in an unmalted form is widely available almost anywhere in the world, even in those countries where brewing beer may be illegal. Just walk into your local farming or equestrian store and you should be able to pick up pounds of malted stuff for very reasonable prices.

You could even try malting your own barley for beer brewing at home as demonstrated in the Youtube video below.

Brewing with Unmalted Grains

person pouring powder
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Unmalted grain brewing presents the brewer with a whole host of other challenges to face. As unmalted grains lack the enzymes for sugar conversion it won’t be as straightforward as malted grain brewing.

If you decide to brew with the sole ingredient being unmalted grains, the yeast won’t be able to convert any sugar to alcohol as it lacks any of the beneficial enzymes needed for the extraction of sugar in the mashing stage. Basically, you will be left drinking grainy water.

The simple solution for 100% unmalted grain beer recipes is to add some of the enzymes needed for the starches’ conversion into sugars. Using something like liquid glucoamylase amylase enzymes (which you can buy from Amazon) will enable you to more easily extract the fermentable sugars from the unmalted grains when using in the mash. A little Ginger root, when used in very small quantities, can also be an excellent tool for breaking down those starches into fermentable sugars during the mash.

Amylase Enzyme Formula 1 lb
  • Breaks carbon 1, 4 linkage in starch during liquefication
  • Leaves 1, 6 links, therefore self-limiting
  • 1 lb

Cereal Mash with Unmalted Grains

Another method of using unmalted grains is called cereal mash. In cereal mash, the unmalted grains are cooked with a small amount of malted barley or another malted grain. This activates the enzymes in the malted grain, which can then break down the starches in the unmalted grains. The resulting mixture is then combined with the rest of the grains in the mash tun and mashed in the same way as with malted grains.

Unmalted Grains as Adjuncts

A more popular way to use unmalted grains in the brewing of beer is as an adjunct rather than the sole source for sugar extraction. While many countries use adjuncts freely in their beer, especially those unmalted grains, German brewers have been forbidden from using them for centuries by the German Purity laws.

Fortunately, Belgium had no such laws, which enabled the country to really explore and push the boundaries of adjuncts in beer brewing. Many countries across the world now use adjuncts in their brewing including, most notably, the maize or flaked corn in Mexican lagers and the rice or corn used in American adjunct lagers.

In adjunct brewing, a large proportion of the fermentable sugars come from sources other than malted grains. This can include unmalted grains such as corn, rice, or wheat, as well as other sources such as sugar or honey. Adjunct brewing can be used to create a lighter-bodied beer or to reduce the cost of the brewing process.

How Do Unmalted Grain Beers Fare Against Malt-Based Beers?

Obviously the different molecular make up of malted grain vs unmalted grain and the different brewing methods are going to have an impact on the finished beer.

One problem many brewers face when using unmalted grains is a stuck mash, in particular with wheat, which can get quite sticky. Unmalted wheat can release a lot of beta-glucans which are used in glue, and these proteins can affect the rate of extraction of the sugar from the starches in the grains during the mash.

If you do decide to use a mixture of malted and unmalted grains when mashing try to avoid exceeding 10-15% percent of the grain bill being unmalted wheat to prevent a stuck mash.

The choice of unmalted grains vs malted will also affect the taste, mouthfeel, color, and even the head retention of a beer.

Differences in Flavor

The use of malted versus unmalted grains can have a significant impact on the flavor of the beer. Malted grains contribute a complex range of flavors to the beer, including sweetness, nuttiness, breadiness, and toasty or roasty notes.

The specific flavors depend on the type of malt used and the kilning process. For example, using a lightly kilned Pilsner malt will result in a beer with a light, crisp flavor and a low level of sweetness, while using a heavily kilned Chocolate malt will result in a beer with a rich, roasty flavor and a higher level of sweetness.

Unmalted grains, on the other hand, tend to contribute a simpler, more neutral flavor to the beer. This is because the sugars in unmalted grains are less complex than those in malted grains, and the lack of enzymes means that the sugars are less varied. Additionally, some unmalted grains such as corn or rice can add a light, crisp flavor to the beer, which can be desirable in certain styles such as American lagers.

Differences in Mouthfeel

Using unmalted grains will have an impact on the mouthfeel of the beer. Malted grains contribute proteins and carbohydrates to the wort, which can create a fuller, creamier mouthfeel in the finished beer. Additionally, the enzymes in malted grains can break down complex sugars into simpler, more easily fermentable sugars, which can result in a drier finish and lower final gravity.

Unmalted grains, on the other hand, contribute fewer proteins and carbohydrates to the wort, which can result in a thinner, lighter-bodied beer. Additionally, the sugars in unmalted grains are less complex and more difficult for yeast to ferment, which can result in a higher final gravity and a sweeter finish.

Differences in Color

Unmalted grains can also affect the color of the beer. Malted grains are kilned to varying degrees to create different colors of malt. Lightly kilned malts such as Pilsner malt are light in color, while heavily kilned malts such as chocolate malt are dark in color.

Unmalted grains, on the other hand, do not contribute much color to the beer. However, they can be used in combination with malted grains to create a desired color. For example, using a large proportion of unmalted grains such as corn or rice in combination with a lightly kilned malt such as Pilsner malt can result in a light-colored beer such as an American lager.

Haziness of the Beer

a glass of beer
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Extra proteins in malted grains can help support the build-up of foam when pouring a beer and can aid with head retention too. Unfortunately, these proteins can also lead to a more permanent haze in the beer. Although you could maybe solve this problem by cold crashing, it may come down to having to choose whether you want a beer with better clarity or one which offers better head retention.

Malted vs Unmalted: Last Call

In conclusion, the use of malted versus unmalted grains in beer brewing can have a significant impact on the flavor, mouthfeel, and color of the beer. Malted grains contribute a complex range of flavors, a fuller mouthfeel, and a variety of colors to the beer while unmalted grains contribute a simpler, more neutral flavor, a thinner mouthfeel, and little color.

The cost and general abundance of unmalted grains also add to the appeal for many brewers around the globe. In countries where malts may not be easily available, raw cereal crops can help make your beer taste and look great.

Both malted and unmalted grains have their place in beer brewing and can be used to create a wide range of styles and flavors. It is up to the brewer to decide which grains to use based on the desired outcome of the beer.

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