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Homebrewing Beer with Specialty Grains

If all the beer-making grain in the world was exactly the same, very few unique beer styles would exist. Because grain (mostly barley) is responsible for providing beer with much of its color, flavor, and texture, adding specialty grains to your beer recipe goes a long way toward changing your beer’s character.

Specialty grains — barley, wheat, oats, rye, and so on — are grains added in order to get special characteristics. They’re not used as a substitute for malt extract, but rather as an enhancement.

Specialty grains are

  • Kilned (roasted) to various degrees of roastedness after they’ve been malted (in some cases, unmalted and still-wet malted grain are kilned as well)

  • Added to give the malt extract the following:

    • A variety of visual, aromatic, and taste enhancements

    • Head-retaining and body-building (the beer’s body, not yours) proteins and dextrins

A few steeping pointers for homebrewing

In a 5-gallon batch, you don’t need much grain to create a noticeable effect. Depending on the grain, quantities of as little as a quarter pound are detectable. For measurement conversions, 1 cup of cracked grain equals approximately 1/4 pound; hence, 1 pound of grain fills 4 cups.

Specialty grains aren’t normally added directly to the brew pot. And like all other grains in the brewing business, they should never be boiled; they’re meant to be steeped in hot water just long enough for them to yield their goods — 20 to 30 minutes should be enough.

In order to capture as much of the grain flavor as possible, be sure to sparge the grain — sparging is pouring hot water through the grain in the strainer (and into the brew pot) until the water runs clear. About a half-gallon of water should do the trick.

Types of specialty grains

Here are the most common specialty grains and their typical uses:

  • Black malt: Black malt is malt that’s been roasted to such a high degree that all malt flavor and aroma have been burned off. Black malt is typically used in Schwarzbier, Porter, and Stout.

  • Chocolate malt: Chocolate malt is malt that’s been roasted to a dark brown color, retaining a hint of its malt character. This malt is used in Brown Ales and Bock Beers, among others.

  • Crystal malt: Crystal malt is named for the kilning procedure that crystallizes the caramel-like sugars inside the still-moist grain.

  • Roasted barley: Because this barley isn’t malted before it’s kilned, it isn’t called a malt. This dark brown grain gives a rich, roasted, coffee-like aroma and flavor and is used primarily in Stouts.

  • Biscuit malt: Biscuit malt is a lightly kilned grain that’s primarily used in Pale Ales and several brands of red beer. It smells and tastes a bit like toasted bread; it can also give a beer a nutty quality.

You shouldn’t mill highly roasted grains. Because they’re somewhat brittle, they have a tendency to crumble during the milling procedure, and that fine, dark grain powder should be avoided because it creates a harsh flavor in the beer.

With the ability to add color and flavor to your beer by using specialty grains, you no longer need to buy amber or dark extracts to make amber or dark beers; you can make them all with light malt extract.

In fact, after you’re comfortable using specialty grains, you’re better off deriving these colors and flavors from grain anyway; the taste difference is appreciable, and it’s more authentic-tasting. You have more control over the taste and color by using real grain any day than by using premade extract.

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