Going with the Grain
Ask the average man or woman in the street what beer is made from and they’ll tell you, quite confidently, ‘hops’.
Hops are, of course, a vital ingredient in brewing. They add bitterness, contribute flavours like tangy herbs and citrus fruit, and act as a natural preservative. But they can perhaps be seen as the celebrities of the beer world.
They grab all the headlines and take all the credit. The main, often forgotten, ingredient of beer, on the other hand (if you exclude water) is malt, or malted barley.
Malt is the source of the starches that the brewing process converts into fermentable sugars, thus giving yeast the nutrients it needs to create alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Malt is also responsible for the mouthfeel of a beer, the texture and body you sense on the palate as you down your pint. And, of course, it has flavours of its own, from sweet and biscuity to nutty and coffee-like, depending on how the malt has been processed before arriving at the brewery.
That pre-brewery stage is truly fascinating. Barley in its raw state cannot be used for brewing. Its starches and enzymes are trapped inside and need to be released. That’s where the maltster comes in and I went to one of the UK’s largest maltings to find out how this highly specialized job is done.
Crisp Maltings was founded in 1962, with the take over of a business established by two brothers named Smith in the 1870s. There are now five maltings in the group, but the head office remains at the mighty Great Ryburgh maltings in Norfolk, where the Smiths launched proceedings.
This is the perfect place to explore the wonders of malting as the site still operates various methods of malt production, from the traditional floor malting process to modern-day, push-button techniques.
Not all barley can be turned into brewing malt. If the nitrogen levels are too high, it will not be usable: the nitrogen will develop a haze in the finished beer. Consequently, checks for this and other qualities are made on grains even before they leave the farm or depot, and only those with the right specifications are given the green light to make the journey to Crisp.
More checks are carried out as soon as the barley arrives. At the entrance, drivers wait while a sample of their truck’s cargo is put through some basic tests. These cover nitrogen levels, moisture content, contaminations, broken corns and other issues.
Once accepted, the barley is either dried and stored in one of Crisp’s enormous silos, for later use, or is put through the malting process without delay. This involves three stages. First the grain is soaked in water at a temperature of 11–15º C for three days. This begins the process of tricking the grain into thinking that it is spring and therefore time to start growing.
In the most traditional method, the now-moist grain is spread out on the maltings floor where the ambient temperature of around 15º C encourages germination to take place. Over the five days that the barley sits here, it is raked and turned a number of times to aerate the cereal, to keep the heat even and to prevent the grains sticking together.
Quickly, little roots appear and the kernel of the grain begins to release its starches and enzymes, ready for the brewer to use. The maltster now needs to stop the germination before all the goodness of the grain is used up by the growing seed.
He does this by transferring the barley (now known as green malt) to a kiln. Here hot air is blown through the grains. I ventured inside. It felt like stepping off a plane at a Spanish airport, as the warm air gushed around me.
The heat is maintained at around 65º C for the first two days, to dry out and stabilize the product, then it is ramped up to 90º C for its final curing on day three. The rootlets that germination has created are softly rubbed off and compressed into pellets for animal feed.
At Crisp they major on producing pale malts, the malt that provides most of the sugars a brewer is going to need, even if he is creating a dark beer. In other maltings, darker malts are produced by heating the grains more strongly, turning them shades of brown and black. The nut, toffee, chocolate and coffee flavours typical of many beers come from a careful use of such coloured malts, alongside pale malt, in the brewhouse.
Floor malting is the old-fashioned way of processing barley for brewing. It is also gentler than the more mechanized methods that Crisp also uses, leading some brewers to insist that floor-malted barley creates the best beer. Others disagree and claim that there is no discernible difference, and furthermore that the economies of scale and less labour-intensive methods of modern malting result in a cheaper, more consistent malt.
The process, however, is essentially the same in methods old and new. The difference lies in the quantity of grain that can be handled at one time. In 1963 Crisps added Saladin boxes to its equipment. These form a series of mechanized malting trays in which barley can be stacked deeper for germination than on a traditional floor, with the grains aerated and turned by machine.
The boxes reflect the heavy industry of the period but they transformed the quantity of malt the site could produce and they are still in use, providing a visible stepping stone from the ancient ways towards today’s state-of-the-art maltings, the first of which came on stream in 1996.
I climbed the stairs of one of these enormous, modern cylindrical towers to discover vast stainless-steel steeping tanks, malting floors and kilns. Having seen the simple, homely methods of the floor maltings, the scale and functionality came as a shock. Each of the tanks handles more than ten times the amount the entire floor malting facility can process in one go.
At the push of a few buttons, the process gets underway – steeping, germination, kilning. Such are the efficiencies that germination is a day shorter here, and kilning only takes two days. The equipment is also much easier to clean, so you can see why new technology has its supporters in the industry.
Once malted, the grains are quickly shipped out to breweries or malt merchants. Crisp’s job is done. The brewer will ultimately claim the credit for his wonderful beer, but, as the old saying puts it, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. There’s a lot of skill and care that goes into that drink even before the brewer starts his work.
The next time you are entranced by a hoppy aroma as you raise a pint to your lips, stop, wait and think. Look beyond the green, tangy, zesty glory boys that steal the limelight and remember the malt and the maltster, the forgotten heroes of brewing.