Single malt: beer’s essential ingredient

Following the Moravian barley harvest from field to glass

Prop up a bar anywhere at the moment and start a chat about beer and you can guarantee the conversation will soon turn to hops. Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Simcoe, Saaz, Chinook – the many different strains of floral cone in its varied forms seems to dominate the minds of drinkers, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Yet every great brewer knows that there is something even more fundamental on the ingredients list when it comes to creating quality beer: the malt.

Although wheat, oats, rye, millet and even rice and corn (mentioning no names…) are used in beer brewing today, malt – which is essentially germinated barley – remains the undisputed king of the beer grains. Mention malt to most drinkers though and conversations can stall. Even bona fide beer lovers don’t always grasp what it is, how it’s produced or the vital role it plays in brewing.

But if hops is the glitzy centre-forward scoring goals that wow the crowd and make the headlines, malt is the creative midfielder, the backbone at the start of every move, shoring up defence and putting in killer crosses. It keeps a low profile, sure, but without it there would be nothing.

    As Aleš Dvořák, beer sommelier at Budweiser Budvar, explains: “Malt is the body of the beer, the colour of the beer, the character of the beer. It makes the alcohol. Hops are the spice in brewing for sure, but without malt beer is…impossible.”

    To try and understand a bit more about this somewhat secretive ingredient and why it’s so important in quality brewing, I’ve travelled with Aleš to Kroměříž in Moravia, to the east of the Czech Republic. Known for its incredible Baroque Bishop’s Palace and Gardens, this town with its stunning square and architecture is testament to the historic wealth of this area, and it is wealth largely won from the ground.

    Outside town we drive through the extraordinary rolling countryside of Moravia’s Haná region. It’s picturebook stuff: a searing blue sky frames field after field of ripe golden barley, painting an agricultural scene unchanged in generations. The treasure trove growing here is malt in its ‘original’ state, a strain of malting barley perfected over many centuries to provide the ideal base for brewing the world’s finest lager.

    Just as Bohemia is renowned as the Czech home of the noble Saaz hop, Moravia is the malt capital, one that is arguably unrivalled in Europe, and Budweiser Budvar has always proudly sourced its barley from these fields. In fact, it is part of the reason the beer carries a ‘Protected Geographic Indication’ status today.

    After ten minutes, we pull into a barley farm cooperative in the village of Klenovice na Hané. The chairman of the farmers who pool together in this collective, Miroslav Kolečkář, is waiting to meet us and fill us in a little on this place and its people. “We are perhaps different here. I am from Haná. I was born in Haná and at least ten generations of my ancestors have been farmers,” he says. “People from here are still really tied to agriculture and the village life; it is still our way of life.”

    He leads us past a herd of very happy looking cattle that produce both impressive milk yields and fantastic beef for the farmers. It’s clear that nothing gets wasted here. With the field space a premium, the cows are fed on the mast that comes as a by-product of the barley growing. And it clearly does them good. Still, there’s no mistaking the real focus of this farm. As we talk, farmers are climbing into the cabs of huge combine harvesters, trundling past us and down to the golden fields. It’s harvest time and in Haná nothing gets in the way of bringing in the barley.

    By the time we make our way through the fields to join them, the combines are hard at work. Row after row is being methodically cut, sending out cyclonic clouds of dust, giving the warm air a wonderful biscuity, cereal smell. In the combine’s wake, the freshly shorn stubble shows up blonde against surprisingly black soil. I reach down and grab a handful. It turns out that this particular earth, almost mythically famous for its productivity, is at the root of Haná’s historic reputation as barley-growing heaven.

    “There is a saying here that if a farmer’s trouser button falls into the soil, it will sprout and grow.” Explains one of the farmers, Jaroslav Mlčoch, as he steps down from his combine. “Of course, it’s not true,” he adds quickly. “Barley actually requires expertise and knowledge, although the earth here is certainly the most fertile.”

    When I ask why that is he smiles and shrugs, unable or unwilling to share the secret. “Who really knows?” He says. “It is very old soil and we are in the river basin of the Morava – perhaps that creates the conditions. We get good rainfall but never in harvest time. What I do know is that the soil retains water perfectly and it is just right for the shallow roots of barley.”

    Growing on these fields for centuries, the barley Budweiser Budvar uses to produce its 90-day matured lager has been modified over centuries – and continues to be intensely monitored and checked in regional ‘breeding’ stations – to be the finest lager malt strain you can find, often referred to as the “mother of all lager barely”. Consistent quality is everything to the brew, even if the growing itself is pretty simple.

    The yearly cycle sees it sown in spring, sometimes up until the middle of March. The barley then shoots and grows for 90 or 100 days before its grains are harvested in the high summer sun of mid-July. However the starch in these fresh-from-the-fields grains isn’t yet ready to be fermented into alcohol. First it needs to be converted into the magic “malt” at a maltsters. And that’s where I’m headed next with Aleš, back to Kroměříž where the brewery’s maltster is based.

    At the maltsters, Kroměříž

    The building is surround by the lush countryside around Kroměříž and here we meet the manager who hands us a fetching set of overalls for a tour round the impressive facility. While old, out-of-use maltsters like those you see scattered around the English countryside tend to look rustic affairs, the Kroměříž site marries centuries of malting know-how with the latest computer-controlled technology. Computers come in handy when controlling what is one of the most important and scientific areas of beer production. And if few people really understand what malt is, even fewer know how this grain is turned from the barley brought in from the fields to the ‘malt’ used at the brewery.

    In Kroměříž it’s a process that works from the top down. Literally. The barley from our farm in Haná is starts at the top of a large tower, then it’s washed thoroughly in large tanks before being steeped in water to increase the water content from around 12% for dry grain, up to about 40%.

    Next, the magic happens: in large cylindrical rooms the grains are slowly turned, and carefully temperature controlled, allowing it to germinate. Entering one of these chambers is like walking in to a sweet smelling spaceship. The smell is a curious one, green and fresh with a strong suggestion of…is that cucumber? I ask Aleš and he laughs. “Yes, cucumber. Actually the more it smells like that, the better and cleaner the malt is.”

    In this chamber the grain starts to sprout, just as in a natural environment, except here it is kept in precisely controlled conditions. This germination creates a set of malt enzymes which are needed to break down the starch during the mashing process of beer making. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Before the malt process is finished, it must be kiln-dried.

    Kilning stops the germination in its tracks and brings that moisture content down to closer to 5%. The kiln is also where colour is produced in the grains, through the Maillard reaction, also known as the secret to cooking delicious steak, bread and other good things. You can thank turn of the century French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard for that. Pilsner lager malt like the one here is only lightly baked but other, darker malts for ales, porters and stouts require a much heavier roast. The kiln is a similar space to the germination chamber, sitting below it in the same tower, but walking in the smell is different again, less green and moving closer to a recognizable component of beer in the glass.

    With beer in the glass now on our minds we head back to the Budweiser Budvar brewery in České Budějovice with Aleš to see some of this magical malt at work. Again here the malt starts at the top of the building, and is sifted through a series of sorting machines before making its way down to the gleaming copper brew kettles in the brewery’s main hall. Here the beer really starts to come to life, and the smell is different again as the malt is boiled with those aromatic Saaz hops, releasing the thick, sweet aroma that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever walked through a brewery town on brew day.

    The long journey of the malt isn’t finished there though; it must be fermented and then perhaps most importantly conditioned, or ‘lagered’ in the brewery’s famous cellars. Budweiser Budvar spends 90 days here, developing the full complexity of flavor the beer is renowned for.

    Aleš taps off a couple of glasses from a giant cream-coloured tank where the brew remains gloriously unpasteurized and unfiltered. He passes me the cool, hazy golden lager and we both sit for a minute to enjoy it. On the nose the unmistakable Saaz hops’ bittersweet aromatics are there, but it’s the body and depth that really shine through with that beautiful amber-gold colour.

    Incredible to think that all of these characteristics come from the humble barley that we saw swaying in those sunlit fields. Then, after a blissful few minutes of sampling, a large man in overalls carrying a red pipe interrupts us; it’s time for this tank to make its way out of the cellars and into the world.

    Next time you’re enjoying a great pint, don’t just think of the hops; spare a thought for the malt too. Bring it up in conversation and spread the word, for if it wasn’t for that sweet Moravian malting barley and some age-old expertise, there’d be no Budweiser Budvar. And, frankly, that’s pretty unthinkable.

    HERE'S TO MALT!

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