I only caught a few seminars at Homebrewcon back in June. The most useful was given by an employee of the malting company, Briess, on a method for preparing and evaluating malt in your home brewery.
I have been trying to be more intentional as a teacher on my brew days. Some of my friends are practiced brewers on their own, others are just getting started. For the beginners, I am trying to offer them experiences I wish I had when I was first learning. One idea I had was to prepare some of the brewing ingredients on their own to help inform our palates about how each interacts in the wort and the finished beer.
Hop teas work great. An electric tea kettle is all you need to release a lot of aroma. I don’t recommend tasting those teas unless you are very bold. This simple approach to malt teas doesn’t work. The method presented by Briess, which they kindly document online, works incredibly well.
Maltsters, like a lot of other producers of brewing ingredients, do some pretty sophisticated quality assurance. For malt, this involves something called a congress mash. To make one, you need an expensive machine, beyond the reach of most home brewers. Congress mashes produce incredibly consistent wort from batch to batch. It turns out you don’t need as much repeatability in your home brewery. With a few implements you likely already have on hand, it is possible to produce high quality, consistent enough samples.
Why would you want to prepare a wort sample? You can chew malt but like trying to make a simple tea, it doesn’t alter the malt enough to really get a sense of its flavor and potential in beer. Chewing will help you assess the freshness of malt. You can get a sense of relative flavors by chewing but it may not be the best way to understand a new to you malt. It makes sense that to get the most out of tasting malt you actually have to perform some sort of mash, to do at least a little of the same starch to sugar conversion as you do when making a full batch of beer.
I finally preformed by first sensory evaluation recently. One of the goodies I received from Homebrewcon was a half pound of caramel rye malt. I’ve never brewed with any kind of rye. I wanted to use this malt while it was still fresh. I had an idea of how I wanted to use it but realized the Briess method would be perfect for understand this new to me ingredient.
I followed the steps in the article on Briess’ site. It worked almost perfectly. The one spot of trouble I had was with my funnel. You want to pour the mini-mash from the thermos into the filter lined funnel all in one go. The idea is this helps the malt compact and form a filter bed, just like in a full all grain batch.
My funnel was smaller than my coffee filters. I couldn’t pour all of my liquid and grain into my funnel at once. I kept disturbing the grain bed so my first sample, of just my base malt, wasn’t as clean and clear as it could have been. I had to keep fussing with the funnel which also made a bit of a mess. Don’t use tin foil to try to extend your funnel, either. That just made more of a mess. If the filter doesn’t fit snuggly into the funnel, pouring in the mash will just keep ripping through the paper of the filter. I have since invested in a 16oz funnel which is just a bit bigger than my coffee filters.
I may try my base malt evaluation again with my new funnel. I found that sample to be a bit watery and thin. Maybe that is the character of base malt but I use Maris Otter which is supposed to have a richer flavor than most pale malts. All the same, I did get some useful notes from the base malt.
Part of what was recommended in the Homebrewcon presentation was to take notes, even rating a sample on a consistent set of flavors like sugar, toast, roast, etc. You can find a good matrix elsewhere on the Briess site or search the internet more generally. The point is to pick some set of flavor elements that are meaningful to you and to use it consistently. If you do, then you can evaluate different malts against each other and even the same malts from batch to batch. I order my base malt in 55lb sacks so imagine it could be useful to evaluate the malt as I use up the sack to understand how time and storage may affect its flavor.
The other thought I had when working on these samples is just how quickly malt actually converts. Using this approach you only steep the grain for fifteen minutes. I’ve read about home brewers experimenting with mash time just as short yielding respectable results. Even knowing this is possible, it is something else to experience it first hand. Granted, for evaluation the scale is quite small, only 50 grams of grain and a few hundred milliliters of liquor. It makes sense that you can get a pretty complete conversion in very little time with such small quantities.
The 2nd malt sample I prepared was worth all the hassles fussing with the funnel. I managed to get closer to an ideal run through, even with my puny funnel. The sample was clean and clear, a rich mahogany color.
Briess recommends mixing specialty grains with base malt for evaluation. You can use a 50% split for things like caramel malts and 25% for highly roasted malts and grains like black malts. I wasn’t sure what this mixing would do in terms of aroma and flavor. As it turns out, I think their guidance is spot on.
The caramel rye malt sample had a strong sweet aroma with just a hint of the spice you’d expect. This malt is 80 lovibond, not super dark but definitely farther towards the roasty end of the spectrum. I was still surprised by just how roasty the sample was. There was plenty of sweetness to offset the roast notes. In the taste, the rye spiciness was equally subdued, hanging out behind the burnt sugar and other dark flavors. A friend warned that a caramel rye malt would have much less of the characteristic rye flavor as compared to a regular rye malt or even flaked rye. He was not wrong.
Going in, I thought I might change my recipe formulation, maybe to include some flaked rye. Based on tasting the sample, I decided for this beer at least to just use the caramel rye malt. The recipe is based on my recently brewed best bitter. I think the caramel rye will shift this variation enough just to be noticeable while asking the taster to think and drink a bit more to figure out why. When the rye variant finishes in a few weeks, we’ll see if I was right.
More importantly, I will have the experience of the sensory evaluation to help me evolve the next batch of that beer with a much better informed palate. I am planning to do more evaluations of new to me malts before some upcoming beers. My seasonal rotation is shifting towards darker beers. I have found some interesting darker malts, Fawcett Caramel II and Briess Extra Special, that I suspect will work well. Hopefully evaluation will confirm my suspicion or if not give me the chance to tweak the recipes based on some good brewing science.