Unlike wheat, barley is hard to grind into flour, but malted — that is, dried, crushed and steeped in water — barley constitutes the base for wort, from which we ferment beer. A brewer can choose from numerous types of barley. Barley is more or less a brewer’s palette; he chooses and blends barley varieties to create the body and flavor of his imagination.
Beer making begins by malting barley, which involves soaking it until the grain begins to germinate. After the barely sprouts a little, it is dried in a kiln, crushed and roasted.
The roasting phase of the process is carefully controlled; it terminates germination, but preserves some of the enzymes created as the grain sprouts. One crucial enzyme — diastase — converts barley starch into a sugar, maltose. Yeast then converts maltose into alcohol and carbon dioxide during fermentation. However, a percentage of the grain is allowed to roast longer than the rest. The barley that roasts longer contributes complexities to the beer’s flavor.
The roasted barley is “mashed.” During mashing, barley starches convert to sugars (maltose) and then dissolve in water, creating the wort.
How the Malting Process Affects Beer Flavor
Although the ingredients list for beer in its early stages is short, beer contains over 800 chemical compounds. The malting process manipulates these variables to bring certain flavors to the fore, or rid the final product of others.
Malting is as much art as science, and is perhaps the single most important determinant of the flavor of the final product. However, beer’s flavor is the product of not only maltose, but also sour organic acids created while the barley sprouts germinate. Each beer has its own balance of sweet and sour elements, and its level of bitterness derives from hops, which, despite what many people think, are a late-stage additive to the brew. Hops do not factor in to the original wort.
Brewers walk a perpetual tightrope to produce a consistent product from a naturally variable set of agricultural ingredients to maintain brand identity. Beer makers struggle to preserve the uniformity of their malt, batch after batch, despite shifting weather and climate patterns, evolving soils and the vagaries attendant to the production of organic compounds.
Brewing a consistently good beverage from barley is a complicated process all but requiring an artistic botanical chemist.