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.


    Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest


    By entering this site you acknowledge and agree to the following terms and conditions. If you do not agree to these terms, do not use this site.

    By entering this site you acknowledge and agree that this site will only be construed and evaluated according to uk law.

    If you use this site from other juristictions you are responsible for compliance with any and all applicable local laws.

    BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK Limited is the copyright owner of this site and no portion of this site, including but not limited to the text, images, audio or video, may be used in any manner, or for any purpose, without BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED’S express written permission, except as provided for herein. Without in any way waiving any of the foregoing rights, you may download one copy of the material on this site for your personal, non-commercial home use only, provided you do not delete or change any copyright, trademark or other proprietary notices. Modification or use of the material on this site for any other purposes violates BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED’S legal rights.

    By entering this site you acknowledge and agree that your use is at your own risk and that none of the parties involved in creating, producing, or delivering this site is liable (to the extent that such liability is not prohibited at law) for any direct, incidental, consequential, indirect, or punitive damages, or any other losses, costs, or expenses of any kind (including legal fees, expert fees, or other disbursements) which may arise, directly or indirectly, through the access to, use of, or browsing of this site or through your downloading of any materials, data, text, images, video or audio from this site, including but not limited to anything caused by any viruses, bugs, human action or inaction or any computer system, phone line, hardware, software or program malfunctions, or any other errors, failures or delays in computer transmissions or network connections.

    Do not post on this site, or transmit to this site, any pornographic, obscene, profane, defamatory, libelous, threatening, unlawful or other material which could constitute or encourage conduct that would be considered a criminal offence, give rise to civil liability, promote the excessive or irresponsible consumption of alcohol, or otherwise violate any law or regulation. Notwithstanding the fact that BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED or other parties involved in creating, producing, or delivering this site, may monitor or review transmissions, posting, discussions, or chats, BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED and all parties involved in creating, producing or delivering this site, assume no responsibility or liability which may arise from the content thereof, including but not limited to claims for defamation, libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, profanity, or misrepresentation.

    By entering this site you acknowledge and agree that any communication or material you transmit to this site or BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED, in any manner and for any reason, will not be treated as confidential or proprietary. Furthermore, you acknowledge and agree that in consideration of your access to and transmission of any materials to this site, all rights (both legal and beneficial) in the nature of copyright arising or existing in any communication or material in which such ideas, concepts, techniques, procedures, methods, systems, designs, plans or charts are contained are assigned to BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED. You agree that you will not have any right to any form of payment or royalty in the event that any such materials are used by BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED anywhere, anytime, and for any reason.

    By entering this site you acknowledge and agree that any name, logo, trademark, or servicemark contained on this site is owned or licensed by BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED and may not be used by you without prior written approval. BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED will aggressively enforce its intellectual property rights to the full extent of the law. Sound, graphics, charts, text, video, information, or images of places or people are either the property of BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED or used on this site with permission. Your use of any of these materials is prohibited unless specifically provided for on the site. Any unauthorised use of these materials may subject you to penalties or damages, including but not limited to those related to violation of trademarks, copyrights, privacy, and publicity rights.

    Although this site may be linked to other sites, BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED is not, directly or indirectly, implying any approval, association, sponsorship, endorsement, or affiliation with the linked site, unless specifically stated therein. By entering this site you acknowledge and agree that BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED has not reviewed all the sites linked to this site and is not responsible for the content of any off-site pages or any other site linked to this site. Your linking to any other off-site pages or other sites is at your own risk.

    BUDWEISER BUDVAR UK LIMITED reserves the right to revise this legal information at any time and for any reason and reserves the right to make changes at any time, without notice or obligation, to any of the information contained on this site. By entering this site you acknowledge and agree that you shall be bound by any such revisions. We suggest periodically visiting this page of the site to review these terms and conditions.

    Notices in respect of this site should be addressed to The Managing Director, Budweiser Budvar Ltd. Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9BB


    Cookies are very small text files that are stored on your computer when you visit some websites.

    We use cookies to help identify your computer so we can tailor your user experience.

    You can disable any cookies already stored on your computer, but these may stop our website from functioning properly.

    This website will use cookies to provide you with the best user experience and also to tell us which pages you find most interesting (anonymously).

    This website will track the pages you visit via Google Analytics

    This website will allow you to share pages with social networks such as Facebook, Twitter etc. These social networks may separately record this activity and such record is outside our control.

    This website will not share any personal information with third parties.

    If you do not agree to the above use of cookies, we respectfully request that you do not use this website.