For a large majority of North America, the concept of specialty malts is a foreign concept. Most production made styles of beer are essentially 2-row malt barley with a handful of adjuncts to change the flavor. Mainstream beer is basically a base malt. When homebrewers switch to more advanced extract or all grain brewing, they discover the importance of specialty malts.
Let’s use the example of a chocolate cake to prove further explain my point. The main ingredient of a chocolate cake is flour, but without the chocolate flavoring, a chocolate cake is not a chocolate cake. As such, a beer made up entirely of 2 row malt is not an Irish Red Ale until you add a combination of caramel malts to the grain bill. In this case the caramel malt is the specialty grain because it changes the beer’s mouth-feel, flavor, and coloration.
Roasted specialty Malts
Unlike base malts where there are only a handful to choose from, the choices of specialty malts is huge. Most specialty malts are made from the same barley that the base malts are made from except they are kilned differently to achieve a wide range of colors and flavors. For our purposes we are going to break these into two categories being caramel and roasted malts.
Roasted malts are perhaps the simpler to explain as the kilning process is the same as 2-row only they are kilned much longer. As you could probably guess, the best examples are used in stouts and porters. One of my favorites is chocolate malt. This is a very dark malt that when kilned for a certain length smells like burnt non-sweet chocolate. It is great in stouts and also makes a base malt change from pale yellow to really dark brown. Other examples would be Black Patent Malt, Roasted Barley or Roasted Wheat.
Caramel specialty Malts
The other specialty malt that is very popular are the caramel malts. You may have also seen these called crystal malts, but these are just different names for the same thing. Like most roasted malts, these malts are essentially just kilned barley with the exception that they are kilned inside their kernel. To add a bit of science to the mix, the maltster then adds water to the grains to mash them individually for a short period of time. Through this process, some of the starch inside the kernels are converted to sugars. The maltster then drys the grains at a temperature between 180 – 360 Fahrenheit, causing the sugars to crystallize (hence the name crystal malt). The higher the temperature, the more crystallization will occur. For this reason, caramel malts are labelled in a incremental scale: Caramel-1o Malt up to Caramel-120 Malt.
What does this mean for you the homebrewer? The scale basically measures the darkness of brown coloration and the amount of caramel flavor once brewed. Caramel-10 would be slightly sweet and a brownish gold. Caramel-6o would be a sweet caramel flavor and a red coloration. Being at the top of the scale, Caramel-120 would taste like strong toffee and have a dark brown coloration. When playing with these malts, you can create some pretty interesting brews. Other than just caramel malts, you can now get nearly every other malt, like Munich or Pilsner malt, in their caramel forms. A good example is Cara-munich which is still the same Munich malt but with a slight caramel flavor that is described as nut like.
Specialty malts are what makes the hobby of homebrewing beer so much fun. You can basically make any type of beer in your very own basement by adding an endless variety of specialty malts. This is also great news for extract brewers because you can add great flavour to your extract brews without all the special equipment all grain brewers need. Just crush your specialty grains and steep in a muslin bag until your water starts to boil.
This isn’t nearly as efficient as a batch of all grain beer, but it is an inexpensive way to add extra flavor to your batch of home brew. Nothing is better than adding fresh grain to the mix. Experimentation is the key to success in this hobby and you never know what you are going to come up with. Just make sure you write down your recipes and tweak away until you have something special.