Base malt, as the name suggests, is the base of every variety of beer. But don’t think for one second that base malts are basic! This article will explore the different types of base malts and their characteristics. If you’re looking for a general introduction to malt then please click here.
Base malts are generally made from two-row barley. One of the main features that defines base malt is its enzyme content. Base malts are kilned at lower temperatures, which preserves the enzymes that break down starch into sugars. This is very important for all-grain brewing, as it means that the starch can be converted into sugars that the yeast can eat during fermentation. The enzyme content of malt is called diastatic power, and it determines how much starch can be broken down during the mash. Lighter kilned malts have greater diastatic power, and malt made from six-row barley has very high diastatic power.
The lightest kilned malt is known as Pilsner malt, and as the name suggests is used as the primary malt in Pilsner-style beers. In fact many pale lagers use Pilsner malt as the only malt in the recipe! But this malt can be used in any beer where a slightly grainy flavour and very pale colour is desired. Like all base malts Pilsner malt must be mashed to convert the starch in the grain to fermentable sugars. Pilsner malt has enough diastatic power to also be able to convert the starch in non-enzymatic grains such as rice, and as such is very good for producing pale American and European lagers.
Pale malt (or two-row malt) is kilned slightly hotter than Pilsner, so has a slightly darker colour. It also retains all of its diastatic power and so can be mashed with adjuncts to convert the starch into fermentable sugars. Pale malt is often used in ale styles such as pale ale, and with specialty malts also forms the base for dark beers like stout and porter.
Vienna malt originated from Vienna and gives a characteristic honey-like sweetness, toasty malt flavour and rich golden colour. It can be used as the only malt in a recipe to produce beers like Oktoberfest lagers, but often is only used as 15-20% of a recipe’s grain bill. It’s slightly higher kilning temperature reduces its diastatic power somewhat so it is not very suitable for use as a base malt with starchy adjuncts.
Munich malt is the darkest base malt. It originated in Bavaria, and is used as the only malt in traditional Bavarian beers such as the Bock. It is used in smaller quantities in many other German lagers and is also very popular as an addition to American-style ales. It contributes a unique, very rich, dark dried fruit flavour and a deep mahogany colour. Due to its high kilning temperature it has barely enough diastatic power to convert its own starch into sugars and so is not recommended for use as a base malt with starchy adjuncts.
Base malts can be chosen depending on a several factors. If the recipe calls for starchy adjuncts such as rice or corn it’s best to use a pale base malt with high diastatic power such as pale malt or Pilsner malt. Of course darker base malts can still be added for colour and flavour, but they won’t contribute much to starch conversion. If you’re brewing a German lager, a base of Pilsner malt with a small quantity of Vienna or Munich would make an excellent foundation. Likewise, small amounts of Vienna or Munich with a base of pale malt would make an excellent foundation for an American ale. Or you could use 100% Vienna to make a deliciously rich Oktoberfest, or 100% Munich would make a very decadent Bock.
Now that you know how to use base malt, go forth and brew! And remember, there’s enough variety and flavour in the varieties of base malt to make it anything but basic.