Homebrewing Basics: All About Grain


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Sarah Postma

Grain is the backbone of every beer. It's what gives beer much of its flavor and appearance, and it provides the simple sugars which will be fermented into alcohol. Grain's protein can take credit for the head retention and cloudiness in a Hefeweizen and the silky mouthfeel of your favorite stout. Grain also produces complex sugars which leave residual sweetness and can add flavors that range from bread-like, to toffee, to chocolate or coffee.


Before grain can be converted into alcohol, the complex carbohydrates need to be broken down into simple sugars. In modern brewing this is a two step process. The first step happens before the brewer gets their hands on the grain. Barley is soaked in water, and then slowly dried in a kiln. This allows the grain to sprout, which begins breaking down the complex carbohydrates and also produces proteins known as enzymes. Grain that has gone through this process is referred to as "malt" .

The Mash

At this point, the brewer takes over. The malt is crushed and soaked in water between 145° and 155° F. This activates the enzymes that were produced during the malting process, and it converts the remaining carbohydrates into simple sugars.

Types of Brewing Recipes

For new homebrewers, all of this might seem a little daunting. The good news is that if you use malt extract, the malting and mashing are already done for you. Malt extract recipes may require you to steep some grain in your recipe (like making tea with a tea bag). However, this is only to add complexity, flavor and color to your beer. All the fermentable sugar that you need comes from the extract.

There are three levels of brewing recipes that are distinguished by how you work with grain:

  • Extract Brewing is when you use malt extract for all of your fermentable sugars, and you steep other grains only for flavor and color.
  • Partial Mash Brewing is when you make a small mash to get sugar out of the grain, but you still supplement your recipe with malt extract.
  • All Grain Brewing recipes are more advanced. These recipes use only grains and no malt extract.

Grain Glossary

Here are a few of the basic types of grains and the styles of beer they're best for.

Base Malts


Base malts make up the majority of fermentable ingredients in beer recipes, usually 60-100%. They're light in color and have a high enzyme concentration (which helps convert the starch to sugar.) Standard malted barley base malts go by the names Pale, Munich, Marris Otter or Pilsner. Malted wheat can also be used as a base malt, but it's typically mixed with at least an equal portion of a barley. These types of grain can be steeped in an extract recipe to provide a little complexity and flavor, but they're really most effective when used in a partial-mash or all-grain recipe.

Malt Extract


Malt Extract is base malt that has been mashed and condensed. Extract can be liquid or powdered, and comes in colors such as light, amber or dark. Extracts will also differ depending on which base malt they are derived from; you can make extract from Pilsner malt or malted wheat, for example. To get the most out of your extract, I recommend using light extract, and adding color (and flavor) by steeping other types of grains. Since liquid extract has less sugar per pound than dry extract, you should follow the recipe and not substitute one for the other.

Crystal Malts


Crystal malts are the most commonly used specialty grains for homebrewing. They are gently roasted while wet, which converts most of the starch to sugar and cooks it a bit. The intensity of the roasting is indicated by the color and is measured in Lovibond (L). Crystal malts that are 10L or 20L are lightly roasted and will contribute an orange color and mild toffee flavors. If you want grains for an amber ale or a brown ale, malts that are 40L to 80L have the color and rich sweetness that you're looking for. Grains higher than 100L provide a very dark color and strong caramel flavor. You can steep crystal malts or use them in a partial-mash or all-grain recipe.

Flaked Oats, Barley, or Wheat


These are used in recipes to contribute a complex and silky mouthfeel as well as flavor. These grains are unmalted and pressed under hot rollers, which preserves the proteins that help with head retention and soft mouthfeel. The creamy texture of Guinness is attributed to flaked barley. Flaked oats are often used in oatmeal stouts and flaked wheat can be used in hefeweizens. Since these grains are unmalted, they must be used in a partial-mash or all-grain recipe. There is not any benefit from steeping these in an extract recipe.

Roasted Grains


Dark roasted grains provide dark brown to black color and roasty coffee, cocoa, burnt and bitter flavors to the beer. They are cooked at higher temperatures than crystal malts and for a longer period of time. Like crystal malts, the intensity of the roast is measured in Lovibond, but these grains range from 350L for a chocolate malt to 500L for a black malt or roasted barley. Roasted grains give stouts and porters their characteristic dark color and rich flavor. The cooking strips all enzymes from roasted malts, but they can be used equally effectively in partial-mash and all-grain recipes as well as in extract recipes.