Before getting too deep into the waters, let’s first discuss what makes a specialty grain, well, special. Any brewer would probably admit that all malts are pretty special, given they are usually beer by the time we finish with them. However, when you want to branch out into certain styles, you need something a little different. Something a bit … special-er.
Specialty malts are created by the maltster, by kilning or roasting the grains at varying times and temperatures. The two main categories being caramelized malts and roasted malts.
Caramelized malts are created when the maltster mashes uncrushed malt in the kernel to hydrate it. When the water is heated to around 150°F the malt enzymes begin to break down the starch. Much of the starch will convert into simple sugars. From this point, the maltster will dry the mashed malt kernels at varying degrees between 180°F and 350°F, causing the sugars to crystalize. This also causes the acids and proteins to undergo a reaction that forms melanoidin, which is what gives crystal/caramel malts their red or brown hue. The higher the drying temperature, the darker the resulting malt.
Roasted malts are not kettle mashed like caramelized malts, and get its color and flavors from the heat of the kilning process. Roasted malts can vary from as low as Vienna malt (around 4° Lovibond) to roasted barley (around 575° Lovibond).
Specialty malts provide a lot of flavor and mouthfeel, in a surprisingly small package. Many people start out with specialty malts adding a lot more than necessary, thinking it will provide them a deeper range of flavors. Don’t go for 40% Chocolate malt in that stout, it’s not going to taste more like a candy bar because of it. What you’ll be left with is an under-attenuated, unbalanced, tannin filled mess. 5-15% is generally the safe range you’ll want to stick with. At only 10% of a grain bill, 1 lb of roasted barley will take your SRM from 2, all the way to 37. Imagine what it’ll do to your flavor. Always heir on the side of less is more when designing a recipe. You can always tweak it the next time if you think it needs more.
People often forget that specialty grains will provide less fermentable sugars than base malts. Keep this in mind when building your recipe and planning for your final gravity. The higher the percentage of specialty malts, the higher your final gravity after fermentation.
Crystal malts are a great way to add some sweetness to your beer. They are also a great way to add mouthfeel and head-retention. Depending on the style, this is where many people turn to when they are looking to add some red or brown coloring to their beers.
Low levels of caramel malts such as 10L will mostly add light sweetness and caramel flavors (such a pale ales and mild ales), while darker versions like 120L will begin to bring out notes of burnt sugar and raisins (think Belgian Dubbel). With many variants between these two polar opposites, you are sure to find something that works for your style.
Like crystal malts, there are many other caramelized malts such as Cara-Munich, Cara-Vienne and Cara-Pils that do a great job of adding body, head retention and varying flavors and colors to your beer. I’ve been known to throw a handful of Cara-Pils in most of my recipes due to its very light color (less than 2°L) and almost devoid flavor. It adds great head retention, mountain like foam, and a smooth mouthfeel.
Roasted malts also vary in color and flavor and definitely pack a punch. Most have little to no enzymatic activity and rely on your base malts for starch conversion. On the low side, you will find malts such as aromatic malt and biscuit malt. Aromatic malt will provide a clean, yet intense malt flavor; while biscuit malt, true to its name, will give more of a bread or cracker like aroma. When you want to go darker, think Chocolate, Black or Roasted. These provide a lot of color and flavor, but when overused can also add astringency, which can be very off putting. Save these for your stouts and porters.
Other Specialty Grains
Now that we’ve discussed malts, we should address the other specialty grain options. These are non-barley malts or unmalted grains. These include your wheats, oats, ryes, corns and rices.
Want a dryer, more crisp beer? Consider wheat or rye as a major player in your grain bill. Replacing around 60% of your base malt with these options is a nice twist on some classic recipes.
Making an oatmeal stout? You’re going to need flaked oats, up to 10% sometimes. This will give your stout a sweeter smoother finish.
Whatever you are doing, remember that making beer is a lot like getting a haircut. Once you’ve gone too far, it’s not always something you can fix. So best to stay on the lighter side at first until you are comfortable and adjust your notes for next time.
Below is my go to Black IPA. I’ve made this a few times and I absolutely love it. It’s got the perfect balance of hops to roasted malts. I think it’s a great example of what a Black IPA should be. Not to roasty, very hop forward, and goes down easy.
Man in Black IPA
Batch Size: 5.5 Gallons
Mash: Single Temp. Infusion – 150°F for 60 min.
11 lb. – Pale 2-Row
.75 lb – Crystal 80L
.4 lb – Special B
.3 lb – Black Malt
.3 lb. – Chocolate Malt
.3 lb. – Victory Malt
.3 lb – Roasted Barley
1 oz – Northern Brewer @ 60 min.
.75 oz – CTZ @ 30 min.
.75 oz – Cascade @ 30 min.
.75 oz – CTZ @ 10 min.
.75 oz – Cascade @ 10 min.
2 oz – Cascade @ 5 Days Dry Hop
Safale S-05 (Fermented @ 68°F)
Until next time, happy brewing!
Stephen Boyajian has been an avid homebrewer for 4 years. A fan of many styles, with a particular love for IPA’s and Stouts. He lives in Gainesville, VA with his wife, 3 kids and dog. When not brewing, he enjoys playing golf or playing bass guitar.