The Basics of Base Grains

"You said to go back to the beginning - so I have."  I can still hear Inigo Montoya slurring that line, and it's good advice, especially for brewers.  So today we check in with base grains, if for no other reason than to be sure that we're getting all we can out of our recipes.

It seems like it should be obviously important, but I frequently run into brewers (amateur and professional) who don't seem to give much thought to their base.  They'll tell you all about the crystal they had imported from the UK, the special steeping method they use for chocolate malts, bore you to tears with discussions of experimental hops and fermentation temperature ramp-up - but when you ask about base malts, you often get a shrug and an "I dunno, whatever I usually use or have laying around..."  Since base malts make up the largest chunk of your grist, that attitude seems bizarre to me.

It matters.  As I'm often recommending, you should be choosing base grains for a reason - and that reason should probably be something better than "because I had a bucket of it."

Base Basics

The good news is that there aren't many grains out there that could reliably function as base malts (that is, malts with sufficient enzymes to convert themselves and most anything else you dump into the grist).   They are distinct, though, and your flavor profile is subtly but persistently and pervasively affected by them, even in darker and more-intense beers.

Let's see what our options are:

  • American 2-row: Faint and light grainy flavors.  A good malt to use if you don't want anyone to notice malt - so, some IPAs, I guess?  
  • American 6-row: A lot more diastatic power, so if you're using a bunch of adjunct, then maybe, but practically speaking there's almost never a reason for homebrewers to use this, especially since it has the same barely-there flavor profile but with a touch of gritty/sharp flavor. 
  • Maris Otter/English Pale Ale Malt: Kilned a bit higher than the American malts, it provides a noticeable cracker/bready/nutty flavor.  An excellent go-to malt for all but the most austere styles.  Speaking of...
  • Pilsner Malt: The lightest malt around.  If you want a malt that at least tastes like something (lightly grainy, slight honey-like flavors) but otherwise stays the hell out of the way, this is your choice.  Obviously it's good for Pilsners (where you want those classic hops flavors coming through), but be careful with it in other less-hoppy applications: it can make beers seem surprisingly sweet.  
  • Vienna Malt: Lands in the no-man's-land between pale ale malt and Munich Malt (coming up next): it has a nice toasty flavor, very little of the sweetness of the lighter-kilned base malts, and stops short of the too-full richness that can come from Munich malt.  It can be used in almost anything; don't be shy about using it in pale beers (my Kolsch is 50% Vienna), and you can also count on it to hold its flavor in stronger/darker beers all the way up to Baltic Porters. 
  • Munich Malt: In a lot of ways, this is the Cadillac of base malts.  Munich has the power to convert itself while also functioning as a kind of utility-infielder specialty grain, with rich bready melanoidin flavor and even a touch of light-crystal flavor.  It can be used in a SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) Doppelbock, or as an equal-partner base malt in lots of other amber-to-dark styles.  

The "right" base grain (or mix of them) for you will vary from batch to batch, but I do have some general advice, if you'd like to hear (read) it.

Clearing the Barley Field (So to Speak)

First off, let's clear the board a bit: I don't own a single grain of American 2-row or 6-row malt.  I prefer to follow the chef's maxim of "season everything."  Why would I choose a malt that exhibits virtually no flavor?  The argument that it's a good choice for IPAs because it "doesn't get in the way of the hops" seems asinine to me.  We're talking about beers that are aggressively hoppy - NONE of the base malts (except maybe Munich) would really compete with it (note to self: brew a German IPA with Munich as a base and an ass-ton of Polaris hops...).

So now we're left with four: Pilsner, Maris Otter, Vienna, and Munich (in ascending order by Lovibond).  Which is used how, and when?  Again, your call, but here are my recommendations and rationale.

The Go-To 

First up, when in doubt, reach for Maris Otter.  With just a few obvious exceptions (below), there's virtually no beer flavor profile that doesn't benefit from a slightly bready, biscuit-like background flavor.  It's beer, after all.  In side-by-side fermentations/comparisons and triangle tests with other folks' beers, I've found an incredibly high success rate in picking out Maris compared to 2-row, and almost everyone prefers the Maris-based beers, even in purely American styles.  I use more Maris Otter than any other grain.  Hell, I even use it in...

Pilsner: The Esoteric Malt

I'm not a big fan of Pilsner Malt (there's something in the flavor that just bumps me, like how I love seafood but just don't like crab), but if you're making certain styles, it's the right choice.  Not many styles.  OK, one style - if it's a Bohemian Pils, then go to town on the floor-malted Pilsner Malt.  For German Pils, I still say you're better off with a Maris/Pils blend and then hammering it with Hallertau, but I know I might be weird in that regard.

In other styles, Pilsner can be a nice blended base malt, especially if you want a bit of light honey-focaccia bread background, but be sure it's in a milder beer: its flavor can get trampled easily, unless you're super-sensitive to it like me.

The Underdog

I once received a 55-lb. sack of Vienna Malt free, as a prize from a competition.  I had my eye on the sack of Munich, but someone got to it before me, and so I took the Vienna.  I'm so, so glad I did: this is a wildly underappreciated base malt.

If you're an amber beer fan (and especially if you're an Altbier nut like me), then Vienna is a great thing to have on hand.  Use it for about 1/3 of the grist in any amber or darker beer, and you'll add a nice toasty-spicy flavor, almost like rye but without the sharpness.  I played around with that sack of Vienna in about a dozen recipes, and in only one (an English IPA) did it seem to make it worse.  

The toast comes through really well, but it doesn't add heft to the beer.  I don't think I could use it for 100% of the grist (some people taste it as being a bit too rustic), but as a blender, it's terrific.

The King

Munich Malt is wonderful.  Someone told me once (an outstanding amateur brewer who has since gone pro) that "a pound of Munich makes every beer better."  It's pretty hard to argue with that formulation.  One of the most common pieces of advice I give to people that seem to have trouble with producing full-flavored beers is to add a pound of Munich.

It's like beer flavor mortar.  It seems to fill in the gaps, and creates a flavor that's more mature and complete.  It can be overdone - don't go over 50% unless you're sure you want a rich, bready background - but as a plug-in malt it almost can't go wrong.  

The Others

I've left out wheat and rye here, even though they're perfectly legitimate choices for base malts.  The reason is because they could (depending on your system or recipe) cause process issues.  We'll jump into those another day (or you can buy the most recent issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine and read all about it!).

Brew Deliberately

My (often-repeated) point in bringing this up is that I want you to brew deliberately.  Make decisions about your entire beer - don't just let it happen.  There's certainly a RDWHAH-based approach to recipe construction, but if your goal is consistency and reliability, then you should be looking at every piece of your recipe as an opportunity to exert some control to get the product you want - and a product you can make again next time.

Begin as you mean to go on, as they say.  Make a deliberate choice on base grain(s), and you'll be well on your way.  

"....you killed my father - prepare to die..."  Sorry.  I had to.  

Keep it simple.

JJW