Choosing the Right Grains for Your Beer

With an embarrassingly large variety of grains available to the homebrewer these days, it can be difficult to make choices among them.  There is so much to consider. For instance, a small amount of dark crystal malt will result in the same color as a larger amount of lighter crystal malt, but the flavor and aroma will not be the same.  It is necessary to have some understanding of the malting process, and to develop familiarity with the different types of malts to make choices that will result in the beer ending up the way you want it to.

The Malting Process

A discussion of the malting process could easily consume all of the space intended for this article.  To stay focused, we will cover it as concisely as possible.  The grain (typically barley, but others such as wheat or rye are also used) is steeped and germinated.  The process of germination unleashes the stored energy of the seed by converting starches to soluble starches and sugars by developing diastatic enzymes.  The germination process is halted by removing most of the moisture by kiln drying, leaving the food energy and enzymes intact.  The ratio of the length of the acrospire (sprout) to the length of the kernel corresponds to the degree of modification.  Once the sprout is the same length as the kernel itself, the grain is said to be completely modified.

Many different types of malts are produced at malt houses using various kiln temperatures and kiln times and further roasting.

General Malt Types

Base malts are starchy and need to be converted to fermentable sugars by performing a mash.  Mashing is (in simplified terms) combining the milled grain with water, and maintaining the temperature where the enzymes are active until the starches are converted to sugars.  These malts are pale in color, and provide the bulk (or all) of the fermentable sugar in a recipe.  There are some higher kilned malts such as Vienna and Munich that also provide color, flavor and aroma.  These are considered to be base malts as well, and can be used in up to 100% of the grist.

Malts other than base malts are commonly called specialty grains.  These are where most of the color, flavor, and malt aroma comes from.  They are already converted, and can be used in a malt extract based recipe by simply steeping them without being concerned about any enzymatic activity.  These malts are the crystal/caramel malts and roasted malts such as Chocolate malt, Black Malt (sometimes called Black Patent), and Roasted Barley.

Potential Extract

When formulating a recipe, flavor, aroma and color contributions are the primary things to consider when making up a grain bill.  To hit your intended original gravity, it is also important to know the potential extract of each of the grain types.  You will not extract the full potential, as no brewery is 100% efficient.  The actual extract is your efficiency multiplied by the grains potential.

Malt Type

Potential Extract

Black Malt


Roasted Barley


Chocolate Malt


Flaked Grains

1.032 – 1.036

Caramel Malts

1.033 – 1.035

Base Malts

1.035 – 1.038

The potential extract is expressed in terms of specific gravity contribution of 1lb of grain/gallon of water.

Specific Malt Types

Below is a table of common grains, their descriptions and common usages, their approximated color, appropriate beer styles, and common commercial examples of these grains.

Grain Type Description/Usage Color ° Lovibond Appropriate Beer Styles Commercial Examples
Acidulated/Sauer Malt Pale malt that has been treated with lactic acid.  Used in small quantities to lower pH in mash.  Also used to impart a tart flavor.

1.5 – 2.0

Stouts, Wheat Beers, Lambics Weyermann Acidulated
Aromatic Malt High kilned malt.  Adds color, malty flavors and aromas.


Bocks, Brown Ales, Munich Dunkel, any beer where malty flavor and aroma is desired Weyermann Melanoidin Dingemans Aromatic
Briess Aromatic
Biscuit Malt A lightly roasted malt. Imparts a biscuity flavor and aroma, and a light brown color.


IPA, Amber Ales, Brown Ales Briess Victory Malt Dingemans Biscuit Malt
Black (Patent) Malt Kilned at a very high temperature. Used in small quantities for a red color.  In larger quantites imparts a dry-burnt bitterness.

470 – 560

Stouts, Porters, Red Ales, Brown Ales, Porters, Scotch Ales, Dark Lagers Muntons Black Malt
Briess Black Malt
Brown Malt A roasted malt, darker than biscuit, lighter than chocolate.  Imparts a dry biscuity flavor, and a light brown color.

60 – 70

Brown Ales, Porters, Dark Belgians, Old Ale Crisp Brown Malt
Cara Munich A medium colored crystal malt.  Imparts a copper color, caramel sweetness and aroma.

40 – 65

Any beer where a medium caramel character is desired Weyermann Cara Munich I Weyermann Cara Munich II Briess Cara Munich
Cara Vienna A light colored crystal malt.  Imparts a golden color, caramel sweetness and aroma.

27 – 35

Any beer where a light caramel character is desired Dingemans Caravienne Briess Cara Vienne
Caramel Wheat Caramel malt produced from wheat.  Imparts caramel character, improves head retention.  One to experiment with.

38 – 53

Dunkelweizen, Weizenbock Weyermann Caramel Wheat
Chocolate Malt Kilned at a high temperature to a chocolate color.  Imparts a nutty toasted aroma and flavor, and a chocolate color.

400 – 475

Stouts, Porters, Brown Ales Muntons Chocolate Malt Briess Chocolate Malt
Chocolate Rye Malt Kilned at a high temperature to a chocolate color.  Imparts a nutty spicy aroma and flavor, and a chocolate color with rye character.

190 – 300

Dunkelroggen, Secret ingredient in your special recipe Weyermann Chocolate Rye Malt
Chocolate Wheat Malt Kilned at a high temperature to a chocolate color.  Imparts a nutty toasted aroma and flavor, and a chocolate color with wheat character.

375 – 450

Dunkelweizen Weyermann Chocolate Wheat Malt
Coffee Malt Kilned at a high temperature to a coffee color.  Imparts a coffee-like character and color

130 – 170

Stouts, Porters, Brown Ales Simpsons Coffee Malt
Crystal/Caramel Malt Crystal malts come in a wide range of color. The lightest are mostly dextrinous, imparting mostly body and mouthfeel.  Moving up the color range imparts more caramel character and darker colors.  At the dark end, flavors and aromas take on a raisiny note.

10 -120

Any beer to add body or color,and/or nutty, toffee, caramel character Weyermann Cara Hell Dingemans Cara Pils Weyermann Cara Red
Briess Crystal 10 – 120 Muntons Crystal 60
Dextrin Malt Kilned at a higher temperature than Pale Malt.  Mostly dextrinous.  Contributes body and improves head retention.

1.7 – 10

Any beer where additional body and head retention is desired Weyermann Cara Foam Dingemans Cara Pils
Flaked Barley Unmalted barley processed through hot rollers.  Imparts grainy flavor, improves head retention.

1.0 – 2.0

Bitters, Milds, Porters, Stouts Briess Flaked Barley
Flaked Maize Processed through hot rollers.  Imparts subtle corn flavor, source of fermentable sugar when used with enough base malt to convert.

1.0 – 2.0

Cream Ale, American Style Lagers, Bitters Briess Flaked Maize
Flaked Oats Processed through hot rollers.  Adds body, smoothness and creamy head.

1.0 – 2.0

Stouts, Wits Briess Flaked Oats
Flaked Rye Processed through hot rollers.  Imparts a crisp spicy character.

1.0 – 2.0

Rye Pale Ales, Roggenbier Briess Flaked Rye
Flaked Wheat Processed through hot rollers.  Imparts a tart grainy character, hazy appearance.

1.0 – 2.0

Wheat beers Briess Flaked Red Wheat
Golden Promise Malt Pale malt produced from Scottish winter barley.  The preferred base malt for Scottish Ales.


Scottish Ales Simpsons Golden Promise
Honey Malt Kilned to produce a malt that imparts a sweet honey-like character.

18 – 20

Any beer where a honey-like character is desired Gambrinus Honey Malt
Maris Otter Malt Base malt produced from winter barley. Imparts a rich malt flavor and aroma.

2.0 – 3.0

English Ales, Scottish Ales Crisp Maris Otter
Muntons Maris Otter
Mild Ale Malt Lightly toasted base malt.  Imparts a nutty character.


Mild Ale, Brown Ales Muntons Mild Ale Malt
Munich Malt A high-kilned malt.  Imparts malty aromas, flavors, and light copper color.

7.0 – 10

Oktoberfest, Dark Lager, Porters, Scottish Ales, any beer where maltiness is desired Weyermann Munich I Weyermann Munich II  Durst Turbo Munich
Pale 2-Row Malt Base malt suitable for all beer styles.  Provides fermentable sugars, light malt color flavor and aroma.

1.8 – 2.0

All beer styles Briess 2-Row Brewers Malt
Pale 6-Row Malt Base malt with higher enzymatic power than 2-row.  Used in American styles with higher percentage of adjuct grains.

1.8 – 2.0

American Style Lagers, Cream Ale Briess 6-Row Brewers Malt
Pale Ale Malt Base malt with slightly darker color. Provides fermentable sugars, light malt color flavor and aroma.

2.0 – 2.5

Pale Ales, All but the very lightest of beer styles Briess Pale Ale Malt
Muntons Pale Ale Malt Weyermann Pale Ale Malt
Peated Malt Pale malt smoked with peat.  Used to produce Scotch Whiskey.  Imparts a unique peat flavor and aroma.


Scottish Ales Simpsons Peated Malt
Pilsener Malt The lightest of the base malts.  Provides fermentable sugars, light malt color flavor and aroma.


Pilsener, All beer styles Weyermann Pilsener
Roasted Barley Unmalted barley roasted to a very dark color.

470 – 560

Stout, Red Ales Muntons Roasted Barley
Rye Malt Base malt for all rye beers.  Imparts a spicy flavor and aroma.

2.8 – 4.3

Rye Pale Ales, Roggenbier Weyermann Rye Malt
Smoked Malt Pale malt that has been smoked with a hardwood.  Imparts a smokey flavor and aroma.


Rauchbiers, Smoked Porters Weyermann Smoked Malt
Special B Malt The darkest of the caramel malts.  Imparts a pruney/raisiny character and deep garnet color.


Belgian Dubbel, Russian Imperial Stout Dingemans Special B
Toasted Malt Pale malt that has been toasted.  Similar to biscuit malt but different.


Brown Ales, Porters, Dark Belgians, Old Ale Briess Special Roast
Vienna Malt High kilned base malt malt.  Not as dark as Munich. Adds color, malty flavors and aromas.


Vienna Lagers, Munich Lagers Weyermann Vienna
Durst Turbo Vienna
Wheat Malt Base malt produced from wheat.  Used as base for all wheat beer styles. Imparts a grainy tart character.

1.0 – 2.0

All Wheat Beers, Small amounts in English Pale Ales and Kolsch Weyermann Wheat Malt

Get to Know Your Malts

Studying the malt types, comparing and contrasting the characteristics is a good start.  Having an idea of how they are made, how they look, and and how they smell is a good next step.  It may sound funny, but chewing the malt when selecting grains for your beer is important.  Take a few grains and munch on them.  This will help you have a sense about them and will be useful when choosing among them.  Finally, you have to brew with them.  Start with a base-line recipe and explore by adding various specialty grains taking your recipe in whatever direction you would like.

Change one thing at a time between each batch so that you can have a good idea of how the change affected the beer.  Keep good records of your brewing so that you know what you did.

With so many flavors, aromas, and even textures to play with, the exploration can last a lifetime.