Caught by the River

Words on wort – diary of a fledgling homebrewer

Ben McCormick | 13th November 2015

By Ben McCormick
3: Malt of the earth

If you were wont to compare the ingredients of beer to band members, as I am, then there are two distinct parts: those that get all the attention and those without whom nothing would happen.

So while the flavour and aroma hops in beer play the role of singer and lead guitarist, with the bittering hops picking up the consolatory rhythm guitar slot, poor old malt and yeast are tucked away in the background keeping the whole thing motoring on, uncomplaining, like any good rhythm section would. Water is the roadies; vital, but no one really takes much notice.

Yeast is definitely the bass player, laying down the vital undercurrent, guzzling all the sugar and excreting alcohol and generally being in charge of the groove. Malt I’d equate with the drummer. Often the butt of countless jokes and frequently sneered at, malt is required to start the whole thing off and is genuinely the real powerhouse. It puts in an enormous amount of effort throughout and with scant recognition from the fans to boot. Its opinion is ignored at meetings and almost all the other members would rather not have to acknowledge its contribution. Its share of the royalties is generally negligible.

But malt is fully aware of its importance. It holds all the cards. It’s the beer ingredient equivalent of the one whose dad owns the rehearsal space, all the equipment and the local venue where the band plays. In short, this beer is going nowhere without malt.

Our unsung hero starts out life as barley, the golden like of which you see being buffeted by swirling winds across summer plains. It suffers a cruel upbringing. Its ears are part germinated by being steeped in water, but just as it’s beginning to grow, that process is cruelly shortened through drying out and heating. A huge variety of tastes can be produced from malting depending on how high the temperature is when the grain is dried. From light, crisp and pale at low heat to brooding, dark and almost burnt when the thermometer rises to roasting point.

Then there are the names. Maris Otter, Pipkin, Caragold, Vienna, Munich and Carafa are my favourites as they somehow evoke a beery equivalent of what wine writers call ‘terroir’. You could argue with some justification that when you’re drinking a beer, it’s malt making the connection with Mother Earth. Were you that way inclined. Other varieties – Amber, Brown, Chocolate, Black – are more functional in name and robust in their output.

That said, practically all the beer you will ever drink is made mostly from a pale ale or Pilsner malt. The supporting cast is there to influence rather than direct. And as the brewer, you are there to manage this lot so they combine to produce something magical. That takes either a world of experience, a lot of practice or a huge amount of luck. Sometimes all three.

And it pays to follow a few basic rules. Some malts really shouldn’t be added to certain beers, while only moderate to tiny amounts of others can have a disproportionate effect on the final drink.

The only problem with malt is that once it’s done its job, it just gets in the way (and here’s where the drummer analogy comes into its own). While you can compost hops, recycle yeast and reuse water, spent grain just sits there taking up space, letting off steam and smelling of Horlicks. You can’t bung it on the compost heap as it’ll attract rats. You can’t make any more beer out of it as it won’t have any convertible sugars left. You can throw it in a wheelie bin and forget about it, but I’m sure it won’t take cash-strapped local authorities long to start charging households extra council tax to remove 25 pounds of sodden cereal every week. Besides which, that just seems like such a waste.

So I’ve been investigating ways of recycling it. Ideally, I’d have the local city farm come round to collect it so they can feed it to pigs or something. But they don’t seem all that keen to do so, looking my malty gift horse squarely in the mouth. A quick trawl of the internet suggests a range of solutions, mostly baking based such as spent grain bread and dog biscuits and none of which sound desperately appealing. You can dry it out, apparently, and make flour by grinding it, but I haven’t the space, the time or the equipment. The best suggestion I’ve heard yet is to feed it to the birds. And at this time of year, it seems like the right and proper thing to do. So my beermaking in the next couple of months will ensure the overwintering avian population of Honor Oak will not go hungry.

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