A maltster reveals all!
Ivor Murrell Director General (Retired), The Maltsters Association of Great Britain
Maltsters are continually surprised by how little is known about what they do, and why they do it. Perhaps we have overplayed the ‘art and mystery of malting’ over the years to the extent that it has become a ‘secret’? We now find that some people are beginning to think that beer is made from hops, and whilst nobody would deny the significance of hops, it does indicate that malt should reveal its true importance. A modern technique for unwrapping information is the question and answer system, so I will use that format to show the importance of malt, and remove some of the mystery.
Why is malt so undervalued?
The answer is that, outside the industry, most people know little, if anything, about it, yet malt has a long history, and a very strong story, and it is worth telling.
For people who grew up in the 1950’s the word MALT is likely to be synonymous with liquid malt extract, which many mothers spooned into their children because they believed it would help their development. Today malt extract is a very important ingredient for natural flavouring in the food industry. You could be eating it in breakfast cereal, or even in ice cream, and be given a clue of its presence in some products such as ‘Maltesers’. However, about 96% of the 16.5 million tonnes of malt made in the world is used as the main ingredient, with water, to make beer. Malt is extremely important in Scotland for malt whisky, but only represents about 3% of world malt use.
What is malt made from?
It is made from the grain harvested from those waving fields of barley that ripen in the summer sun. It is predominantly made from barley, but other cereals can be malted. Malted wheat is used to make some types of bread, and can also be used to give different qualities to ‘wheat beers’.
The vast majority of malt is made from barley, not just any type, but malting barley. This special barley has taken hundreds of years to be improved by selective breeding into the varieties that we use today. It takes many years to develop a new barley variety, from the original cross breeding of a pair of barley types to a successful commercial crop of sufficient tonnage for malting. In the last three or four years of this process, experts from malting, brewing and distilling carry out tasks to evaluate the new barleys, in Scottish and English work groups. This geographical split is important not only because of the differing needs of cereal cultivation in the two areas, but also because of different malt type requirements.
For the last 80 years the UK has led the way in a continual search to produce the best type of barley for malting.
Farmers have developed their skills to enable them to grow the high quality barley that maltsters need. By their choice of barley, when they plant it, and how they ‘feed it’ farmers can influence what the protein level is in each ear of corn. Sunshine and rain also have a big impact on grain quality.
A different protein content in malting barley is needed for each specific malt use. Most whisky malt is made from low protein barley, as the lower the barley protein content (measured in terms of nitrogen), the more starch there is in the malt made from it, and whisky distillers want as much starch as they can get to convert into malt whisky in their distillery. Brewers use malt made from a wide range of protein levels in barley, from 9% to 12% depending on the type of beer being brewed, and the brewing equipment.
Farmers growing malting barley have to know what type of barley and its protein level their customers’ want, and grow their grain very carefully for that specific market.