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How do I improve malt flavor?

I tasted a Rochefort 6 at a brew club meeting the other night. Later that evening I opened a bottle of my Belgian strong dark made with Abby II yeast (Rochefort) and it did not have the same malt complexity as the Rochefort 6. I don’t brew lagers anymore, but my daughter brought me some beer from Germany this summer and they had an amazing malt character. I am using mostly Weyermann and sometimes Best Pilsner malts, but I am not getting the same character. I used 5% Special B, 5-10% D2 syrup and I think I even used some Weyermann’s Munich malt in my last Belgian Strong Dark. The beer tastes great, but is not as rich as the original. I have brewed for 20+ years, and pay attention to water pH and all that. Are we just getting old malt, or am I missing something?

Well there is a reason we pay a premium for DWC or Hugh Bairds. I try to get away with adding some toasted malt and maybe some munich to get some maltiness with american pale but the result pales next to the real thing. The maltiness from German brews is likely from decoction that they do because of their pilsner malt.

Have you tried no-sparging?

A friend of mine uses the no sparge method, and his beers are very malty. He only makes English pales and uses maris otter. He also often uses old hops so I thought his beers may be malty from the lack of fresh hops. I did make an English barley wine last December from the first runnings of two mashes and it has a very low malt flavor for the style. I made about 10 gallons at 1.100 from 38lbs of Maris Otter and 2 Lbs of few specialty crystal malts. It should be very malty, but is not. My success story on this one is that it is almost a year old and is not oxidized. I have been using Munton’s Maris Otter.

Decoction can add a malty flavor, but I don’t think the Belgians are using this in their strong dark brews.

What’s your chloride concentration? And sulfate?

You may want to mash at a higher temperature for a “richer” wort.

Gordon Strong has some interesting points on the issue in his book Brewing Better Beer (though it is in reference to a DeKonnick clone):

  1. Check out Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium (a good source on the subject);
  2. Biscuit and CaraMunich malts;
  3. Saaz hops at 25 IBUs;
  4. Belgian Pale Malt, rather than Pilsner (which the brewery claims to use), along with debittered black malt added to mash at vorlauf;
  5. No sugar - mash at 151;
  6. Start with RO water and add 1/2 tsp of CaSO4 and 1/2 tsp of CaCl2 to strike water and 1/4 tsp of each to the boil;
  7. Add phosphoric acid to sparge water to get pH to 5.5;
  8. WLP 515 yeast pitched at 60F and fermented at 64F.

FWIW. I thought the most interesting thing for the DeKonnick was the no sugar.

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Until I prove it to myself otherwise, I still subscribe to the theory that low efficiency is the key to malty goodness. I’m going to play around with this notion a lot over my next 5 or 10 batches.

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Yeah, I was thinking something to do with water also.

Mine improved somewhat when I went to RO with added salts. I’m also doing no-sparge and it hasn’t made a huge difference. I still don’t have the tremendous malt flavor of a Brooklyn Brewing beer or any of a number of fine craft beers. I’ve tried continental malts, specialty grains, etc. I might try using more crystal, I tend to err on the low side with that. And I also tend to mash for a dry finish and that probably doesn’t enhance malt flavor. I’ve also considered if I’m getting some oxidation, and have thought about modifying my process when it comes to post-fermentation practices.

You think oxidation would lead to a low malt flavor? But yeah, erring on the low side of crystal will lead to lack of malt flavor I imagine. I mean, you’re doing other stuff right. RO water and adjusting it, that can’t be it. Could be the yeast your using too. US-05 really doesn’t leave that much malt flavor, but I don’t know if that’s what you’re using or not, regularly.

What kind of efficiency are you guys getting with the no sparge thing?

I’ve only done no-sparge once or maybe twice, but it seems normal to get somewhere between about 52 to 58% efficiency. Jack up that malt bill. If the poor efficiency makes you sad, plan to boil a little longer than normal – maybe 90 to 120 minutes – which forces you to add more water for the longer boil, which should, in theory, get you good malty results but probably brings your efficiency up into the low to mid-60s.

I think that is one of the results of oxidation described in Gordon Strong’s book.

Dave, I don’t think I buy that you have to get low efficiency to get malty flavor in a homebrew. Leaving stuff behind isn’t the problem, its picking up unwanted flavors on the sparge. When I do no-sparge, I mash with my total amount of preboil water, thats 3.5qt/lb or thereabouts. Plenty of buffers in there, shouldn’t be picking up off flavors. or you can add extra water after you mash. Eitehr way the grain holds back 1/2qt, so you get 3/3.5 = 85% efficiency. I actually generally get around 75% the way I figure it, about the same as I get when I do a conventional batch sparge method. I really don’t think its tannins or something like that masking the malty flavor, but I’m kind of at a loss for what it is. You know the commercial brewers aren’t satisfied with 55% efficiency, so if they can get the flavor why can’t we? I don’t know this answer, but this is why I am starting with water and moving to oxidation and the other little things that a mostly closed system offers.

Okay, I’ve got some more ideas besides just reducing efficiency. What if for every recipe that specifies American 2-row malt, you used German Vienna malt instead? Or how about Maris Otter? Would that increase malty flavor? Even split it – try going 50/50 on it. I bet it would help quite a bit. And along with that… maybe instead of trying more and more specialty malts, perhaps consider using LESS specialties (unless you would consider Vienna or Maris Otter malt specialty malts).

What if you did something similar for pilsner? Maybe go 51% pilsner malt, 49% Vienna malt? So I wonder if maybe the answer is: we need to use more malty base malt.

And what about freshness? Are we all buying the absolute freshest ingredients for every single batch, or are we using up 3 pounds of that old leftover base malt that’s been in the basement for 18 months, or that half pound of Crystal 15 that you never had a recipe to use it so it just sat there for 5 years. What if we threw away all our leftover malt and bought all brand new malt of absolute highest freshness for every batch? What then? Do commercial brewers leave a sack of Crystal 15 laying around for 5 years? I’m thinking no, they do not, and freshness could be a large part of the equation as well.

Just ideas floating around…

Well and on the freshness topic: how often to maltsters get a new crop of barley to malt? Once a year, right? What happens to it after they put all the freshly malted barley in sacks? It probably sits in their warehouse for a while before getting sent out to homebrew shops, pro breweries, etc, right? I don’t know the answer.

I think changing the base malts is kind of avoiding the problem, putting a bandage on it, instead of actually fixing the problem. I think water maybe have something to do with it. We haven’t heard what he’s using for water, have we?

Good brainstorm Dave!

I have the same problem with Ofest that has a good amount of Vienna and Munich. For awhile I was using some Vienna in a lot of beers just for this purpose and it didn’t seem to fix things. It might be that I just don’t like Global Vienna that much, I’ve done a Vienna lager with it as the sole base malt and didn’t enjoy that. My recent Munich helles had a modest amount of light Munich and it probably had more malty flavor than a lot of my bigger/fancier recipes. Part of that is the low bitterness, but the commercial boys can get malty and bitter in the same bottle so why can’t I? Maris Otter has some of the most interesting malty flavor of any base malt, I don’t see using it in everything though. In fact I didn’t care for it in my APA but then that isn’t a malt-focused beer. The British crystal did seem to bring an improvement over Briess.

You said something about usng less specialty malts, and I think that might have merit. When I go to my beer cave to formulate a recipe and theres all these cool specilaty grains, its a temptation to pull out several kinds and I suppose this could lead to a muddling of flavor. In fact my friend brought out a Scottish 60 a few nights ago and it was Golden Promise and crystal, and the stuff had better flavor than my all-out Scottish 80 that I boiled some wort down on for more caramel flavor. I was a little miffed but enjoyed his beer anyway.

I’ve simplified my water to RO and usually a little CaCl2, and I’ll sometimes throw in a pinch of sea salt since it can bring out sweet flavors. It has been better than my tap water that has high sulfate. I’ve used some CaCO3 but not in every beer. Haven’t been measuring pH and I should really do that.

I’ve learned over the years that when you are troubleshooting, it is usually more productive to change everything you can think of and see if it works, rather than spend months working on one variable at a time. You can then start dropping individual changes and see if you still get your positive result. That gives you more good beer than the other way around.

I’d love to hear what people would say about a Cl:SO4 ratio that leaned heavily to the Cl side. If I make a beer with 100% filtered tap water and use a good amount of Calcium Chloride in the mash (to boost calcium), my chloride number is much, much higher than my sulfate number (depending on style, I add gypsum and MgSO4 in some cases) and I end up with quite a malty-tasting beer. I once made a Czech Pilsner with my water (not knowing it wasn’t really suitable for the style) and added CaCl to the mash and had a bunch of homebrewers over who were blown away by the rich, maltiness of that beer. Does anyone think that a Cl:SO4 ratio that heavily favors the Cl is the key to better malt flavor?

Definitely the weight towards chloride is better for maltiness. Even for my hoppy beers I’m only using a balanced Cl:SO4 level.

I thought this was the holy grail but it hasn’t quite brought my beers to perfection so I’m still searching. Its possible that Walmart RO isn’t quite a clean or consistent as it might be, I suppose I should have a sample tested every so often. Since our tap water is kind of hard and has fairly high sulfate, more of it may be coming through their system if they aren’t good at maintenance.

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