Which Dark Malt is the Right Dark Malt for You?

If you’ve been into Jay’s Brewing in the last year or two, you’ve likely noticed when it comes to dark malts, we’ve got a lot of them. Sometimes it can get a bit confusing as what each one should be used for or even in what quantities they should be used. With this being the time of year for darker German lagers and big roasty stouts this guide should help determine the best malt for your beer. Below is a quick overview of the different options available and what they do.
Unless otherwise stated, the general rule of thumb is that dark malts should be less than 5% of your total grist. The more you use, the more prominent it will be. For some styles you will want to use more combined. For instance, my Black IPA uses a total of 6% dark malts as late additions (3% CARAFA 3 and 3% Midnight Wheat), while my latest Imperial Stout has a total of 10.7% full mash additions (4.1% Chocolate, 4.1% Roasted Barley and 2.5% Pale Chocolate).

The Many Worlds of CARAFA

There is a common misconception that there are only 3 versions of CARAFA. CARAFA, CARAFA 2 and CARAFA 3. Before writing this article, I myself actually thought this. Believe it or not, there are actually 6 versions of CARAFA. There are two main categories for them Standard and Special, each with malts 1, 2 and 3. There is only one major difference between the two categories and that is that the Special version is dehusked.

So, what does dehusked mean for your beer? Simply put, it gives you the same exact malt as the standard, without the harsh and astringent flavors that can sometimes come with dark roasted malts. Some styles do well with a little bit of that dark roasted bite, however if you planned on making something like a Schwarzbier, you’d be better off with CARAFA Special 2 over CARAFA Standard 2.

So, what do the 1, 2 and 3 mean anyway? Well, the easiest way to remember them is as levels, with level I being the lowest and level III being the highest and each increasing in flavor and color. All 3 of the CARAFA’s will provide espresso, coffee and chocolate flavors, each with a little more intensity. As for color, level 1 sits around 300°L, level 2 just over 400°L and level 3 between 500-550°L.

CARAFA, more often than not, is used to darken a beer. It can be added at the end of the mash for 5-10 minutes to add a rich darkness to your beer with minimal flavor impact – As a test, I took a British Golden Ale recipe that was 5 SRM and added 8 oz of CARAFA 3 to the grain bill, this rose my beers SRM to 23! Also, please don’t put CARAFA 3 in your British Golden Ales. 😉

What about Black Malt (Black Patent) and Black Barley (Roasted Barley)? Aren’t they interchangeable?

No. Their names may be similar, but these malts will produce different end results. Both are highly roasted, up to and beyond 500°L. While some versions of Roasted Barley reach that mark, typically the UK varieties, most American versions tend to be around 300-350°L. Black Malt, regardless of maltster is always a minimum of 500°L.

Roasted Barley is un-malted, whereas Black Malt is always malted. If you are unfamiliar with the difference, malting essentially means that the grains are soaked in warm water until they begin to germinate. The maltster then halts the germination process and dries the grain. They do this in order to develop enzymes that can break down starches and proteins in the grain that can aid the brewer in converting sugars during the mash process.
Because of the difference in processing, Roasted Barley tends to have a softer rounder profile, with more coffee flavor and aroma than Black Malt. While the flavor is similar in both, the Black Malt tends to be a little more muted than Roasted Barley, especially in terms of aroma. Roasted Barley will produce a nice white head, while Black Malt will lean more reddish brown.

Many people believe Black Malt to have a burnt ashy flavor profile as well, something I personally don’t subscribe to if used within the suggested usage amounts, but I could see it being possible. Black Malt is never fully brought to combustion in the kilning process which is where that acrid burnt flavor comes from, but it does come close.

In my experience, I tend to use Black Malt more for color adjustments, where as I use Roasted Barley for color and flavor.

What about Chocolate Malt and Pale Chocolate Malt?

These are the bread and butter of stouts and porters as far as I’m concerned. Above all else, I tend to use more Chocolate Malt and Pale Chocolate Malt than any other roasted malt. That said, the names are a misnomer.

Chocolate Malt has a rich, deep coffee flavor profile. If you are using this to get chocolate, you will be disappointed. To me, Chocolate Malt is a softer, less bitter Roasted Barley. It’s typically just as dark as US Roasted Barley, with a cleaner overall flavor profile. I use this a lot in porters and oatmeal stouts.

Pale Chocolate Malt on the other hand, is another animal. When I’m making a stout, this is my secret weapon. The name is half right, but far less deceptive than Chocolate malt. At over 200°L, there is nothing pale about this malt, however the flavor profile in a beer when used right, is rich milk chocolate. I use this in almost all of my sweet stouts and also in some of my imperial stouts. If chocolate is what you want, use Pale Chocolate Malt. Coupled with cacao nibs, this will make your beer rich, chocolate decadence.Aren’t there a lot more you didn’t mention?

There are! Midnight wheat, Brown Malt, Coffee Malt, Dark Chocolate Malt, the list goes on and on. I won’t get into all of them, but I will give you some quick impressions of two I use frequently.

Midnight Wheat to me is similar to CARAFA III, except it is a wheat malt, as opposed to barley. Due to this, it is bitterless, and lends no astringency or dryness. It starts slightly sweet, with hints of roasted flavor while finishing exceptionally clean making it a great malt to be used in Black IPA’s, Schwarzbiers and Dark Saisons. Since it’s a wheat, it also has the added benefit of giving your beer better head retention.

Brown Malt is, as the name would suggest, great in a brown ale or English mild. While not as dark as other roasted malts, you will get some nice biscuit, nutty and light roasted flavors out of this malt while amplifying that rich brown color and not making it so dark it looks like a stout.

How will I know which grain is right for my beer?

I tend to eat grain. Not by the handful, but I’ll throw 1 or 2 in my mouth and chew it. You will get a subtle representation of what that malt will do. Want to see how it works well together? Throw 2 of each in your mouth.

Now, I know some people are hesitant to start chewing on grains, and there is another way. Stop by Jay’s Brewing and pick up a small amount of each, 1 oz at most. For a total investment of under $2, you can get a 1 oz sample of every dark malt in the store.

You’ll need the following:

  1. Notepad and Pen
  2. Loose leaf tea infuser OR muslin cloth OR many small hop socks
  3. Two (2) oz of water heated to around 140-150°F, for each sample you have
  4. Cup or Mug that can withstand the temperature of the water and can hold 1 oz of grains and 2 oz of water, for each sample you have. Clear is preferred – Flight or Taster glasses are perfect for this.
  5. Crack the grains using a rolling pin (I find it’s easier to put them in a Ziploc first), or if you have a coffee grinder a quick 1 or 2 pulses will crack them without pulverizing them.
  6. Make tea!

Now, as you drink each one (you don’t have to drink it all), take notes. Taste the subtle differences, look at the colors, considering blending some to see how they work together. For a very small investment, you’ve given yourself the power of knowing what every one of those grains will do for you and how they can be used. Knowledge is everything when it comes to building a recipe.

Stephen Boyajian - Avid homebrewer and all around nice guyStephen 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 guitar.

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