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Seeing the Numbers - Regular Series of Insights and Ideas from Hugh Alexander.

First, some questions for you. What makes you want to explore malting? If you are already malting, how much attention to the analytics do you pay, and how have they altered how you malt? Do your customers demand the analytics? And if so, do you sit and agree an analytical profile for the malt you will sell to them. These are not trick questions. I hope there is some quality control and assurance going on, otherwise chaos will ensue. What I wanted to explore today is how these analytical parameters were derived, why they were arrived at and just what we do when some of them go out of bounds. That implies we can do something other than blend away the offending malt packets, and try harder with the next batch.

I’m old enough to remember when a malt spec may have been decided by the brewer’s dog. If the dog would eat the malt, then that was good enough and a malt contract would be agreed between the maltster and the brewer. There was an implicit trust that the maltster would not supply a poor quality product. Probably here, the first analytics would have been the malt moisture and the extract. It was illegal in the UK to sell slack malt. So, ok, moisture content was important. It also now in conjunction with the extract figure allowed the brewer to start brewing to a defined starting gravity without having to boil furiously or add vast amounts of dilution water. That’s important, right? Because here in the UK, the tax due is calculated on the starting gravity of the wort, among other measurements. Does that make the measurement of moisture and extract a prerequisite for making beer? Sort of, but mainly to satisfy people other than the brewer.

The next parameter to have importance was colour. Here, yes the brewer wants a malt of a certain colour, because in many ways that defines the beer type. If it’s called IPA then it must not be the colour of Porter. The colour, in days past, also set the flavour profile to a large extent. So, again, yes, that’s a brewing analytic of importance. For colour we can say that how we set up the cure stages of a kiln will determine colour. I don’t know just how important the variation in what is loosely termed base malt is these days. We used to have quite a range of base malts in my younger days, ranging from just above pilsner malt in colour to very red coloured malts. All could be used as base malt without recourse to speciality malts in the mash tun. Perhaps we were spoilt, because all we had was Maris Otter barley to start with. Life can be hard.

This leads neatly into diastase, as it used to be called. The brewer knew that the darker the colour the less the extract and the lower the fermentability. It was only when the concept of enzymes came into being (enzyme comes from ’in yeast’) that we begin to understand what is happening in a mash tun. We realise that the enzymes present in the malt are related to just how hard we cure the malt on the kiln, to a large extent. This then is the empirical connection between colour and enzyme potential of malt. We also realise that the quantity of diastase depends on where the grain is in its course of germination. Day one, not much, but by day three and four then lots, and then it seems to level out. As our ability to analyse becomes greater, we see that along with the diastase there are also proteases, beta-glucanases, phytase, arabino-xylanases, in fact all manner of enzymes. Each researcher in a particular field asserts their importance in just how the malt is made and then performs in the mash tun. And so the malt spec becomes ever more burdened by analytics. Who remembers the Bob Hope film where he is a dentist in the Wild West going by the name of Painless Potter? Somehow the hapless Bob Hope offends the local gunslinger and is challenged to a duel, a showdown in Main Street. Bob becomes so confused by the countless pieces of advice about how to win the duel. If the winds from the left, then aim to the right. If the sun is up high, then shoot low down, and so on and so on. All to no avail, as Calamity Jane shoots the gunslinger for Bob. The point is, so many possibly conflicting analytics to conform to. Do they match up?

So, now we are at a stage where the number of analyses are mounting up. We have:-

Moisture, extract, colour, diastase, alpha amylase, total nitrogen, soluble nitrogen, free amino nitrogen, fermentability, NDMA, dimethyl sulphide, DON, ethyl carbamate, beta-glucan, beta-glucanase, arabino-xylanase, friability, viscosity, screenings. How many of these are to do with brewing, and if out of spec, how does this affect the beer? How many of them are just to do with supporting the other analyses? Can we reach a more holistic picture or does it have to be broken down into so many analytics?

Here’s what I think could happen. Moisture, ok, mainly don’t sell slack malt. Extract, important, but tie this up with viscosity, beta-glucan (if you must) and friability. Fermentability, associated with colour and free amino nitrogen and the starch degrading enzymes. This, if you are brewing beers with a lot of unmalted adjuncts. NDMA, DON and ethyl carbamate are there to meet public health guidelines. The nitrogen figures tell you just what quality of barley you used, and how well you malted it. So, if you are confronted by a brewer with a malt spec the length of the Dead Sea scrolls, ask him to justify each one, and then talk about why each spec may be important and how to meld each to a malt formula that is achievable.

How different is this to the brewer’s dog, to achieve the same end point? I know that for the large brewing consortia, a very tight malt spec is essential to satisfy the accountants. All actualities must match the forecasts otherwise the predicted profits and share values don’t come about, and God forbid, the investors may divest their share holding. So, as a craft brewer, are you constrained by this mentality also? Or can you use your skills to smooth out slight discrepancies in a malt? The maltsters will try their best to give you what you want, but see the numbers for what they are.


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