There are possibly hundreds of different styles of beer a homebrewer could choose from and possibly endless variations in recipes. One thing that all beers have in common though is that they are all created using a base malt. When we are talking about the base malt of a specific beer, we are literally talking about the base of the beer. Any extra flavors added to the beer would come in the form of specialty malts like caramel, chocolate, or roasted malts.
A good analogy of this is when baking a cake, the flour of the cake would be the base just as a “base malt” is the base of a beer. In the case of homebrewing, the base malt makes up approximately sixty to one hundred percent of grain bill. The main purpose of a base malt in a recipe is to provide a base of fermentable sugars for the beer which establishes a majority of the alcohol content of the beer.
Another important aspect of a base malt, yes there is something as important as alcohol content, is to provide enzymes to convert starches into sugars. This is especially important if the specialty malts and adjuncts lack enough enzymes to convert to sugar on their own.
Foundation of Beer
Most homebrewers are not concerned about base malts until they start making making all grain or partial mash beer where there is more selection of grains to choose from. Prior to this, the choice of base beer malts were merely a choice between pale, light, dark, and amber malt extracts.
So in the case of an extract made beer, the base malt of an American Lager or lighter pale ale would probably be a Light Extract. In this case, the light malt extract would probably be nearly one hundred percent of the beer. A more advanced extract beer like that of an Imperial Stout could use the same light malt extract but in double the portion and would also have the addition of specialty grains. These are often steeped in a muslin bag to add traditional flavors like chocolate, toffee, and roasted characteristics. Put simply, base malt equals volume and alcohol and specialty grains equals flavor.
Moving to Brewing with Grains
Things get much more complicated when we advance to ‘all grain’ or ‘partial mash’ brewing. Things are no longer as simple as light or dark, but the world of home brewing is officially open. Things are complicated because there are multiple types of grains to choose from and thousands of different grain ratios, mashing temperatures, and mashing ingredients. For the sake of keeping things simple, we will be mainly focusing in on pale malts since they are the most commonly used in beer making.
Types of Pale Malts
The most common base malt is pale malt, often sold as 2-row or 6-row barley. This base malt is used in the large majority of beers. It is lightly kilned giving it a very light coloration. Any beer made solely of this malt would be a medium yellow color.
The great thing about this malt is that it has a lot of enzymes that greatly aid in the conversion of adjuncts like corn, oatmeal, etc. If you are looking for something slightly different, Pale Ale Malt is essentially the same as 2-row malt only the grains have been kilned slightly longer. Being toasted slightly longer gives the base beer malt a slightly darker coloration, a more malty flavour, and a more pronounced aroma. These types of malt can be used in nearly every type of beer found throughout the world. Just like the dried and liquid malt extracts, these malts create a base malt to which specialty malts can be added to in order to create virtually any type of beer.
Munich and Vienna Malts
While 2-row is the most common go to grain for creating a base malt in brewing, there are a couple special malts that can also be used. Vienna and Munich malts are added in large quantities as part of the base malt grain bill. These two malts are very similar to not only 2-row malt, but also each other. Both are kilned slightly longer than 2-row which brings out different characteristics in the final product.
Munich is the slightly darker of the two and contributes orange hues to the final beer. This malt is great for amber or darker ales. Munich malt lends a grainy toasted flavor to the final beer.
Vienna malt is less grainy tasting than Munich and a slight bit sweeter. Because it is lighter, it has the coloration of an English pale malt being just slightly darker than a pale malt. This all means that Vienna Malt is a versatile malt that can be used in most ales.
Although technically both can be used alone as a base malt, they are often mixed with pale or pilsner malt because they don’t have a substantial amount of enzymes to convert the starches into sugars.
Another awesome potential for both Vienna and Munich malt is that they can also both be used as specialty malts. Used in small percentages, Vienna malt adds more richness in the malt profile, while on the other hand Munich adds a malty sweetness to the flavor along with a reddish color to the final beer.
To sum this all up, if you use a pale malt you can make virtually any type of beer you can imagine. A base beer malt is the starting point and main building block to the creation of all beer types. The base malt is often light in color and body which means by simply adding specialty grains to the base male, like caramel, chocolate, or roast malts, the flavors of the base will be covered up by the flavors of the specialty malts.
To add complexity to your base malt, you can also add Munich and Vienna malts to your grain bill. These malts act as specialty malts within the base to tweak the flavor, body, and color of the final product. Without the base malt, there would be no body and very little alcoholic content to the beer. While some times unnoticed due to the flavors of the specialty malts, the base malt is perhaps the most important aspect of the grain bill.