Seeds of Life

The Overlooked Importance and Complexity of Grain in Brewing

By: James Burt

On a recent trip to promote his new book Miracle Brew: Hops, Barley, Water, Yeast and the Nature of Beer, English beer writer Pete Brown spoke to an audience of brewing enthusiasts at Toronto’s Henderson Brewery. Speaking on his extensive research for Miracle Brew and other works, Brown made note of how much grain and its role in brewing is so often overlooked by the modern beer critics and drinkers in general.

“People say it’s all about hops and that’s what gives any beer its special taste,” Brown said. “But barley and malt are the commodities that make a beer its own drink.”

Brown paid close attention in his extensive travels and observations to the process of selecting grains. He also detailed the malting process grains endure through to give specific beers their characters in texture, appearance, and taste.

“Grain needs to be ‘tricked’ to generate the sugars that yeast will eat fermentation to generate beer—that’s the malting process, or what one brewery called ‘the torture and genocide of baby plants.’ It’s a heating process to generate enzymes that break down the grain into sugars just before the grain germinates, sprouting a plant. And it’s something that’s widely misunderstood to those that don’t brew regularly. For example, a dark beer does not necessarily use a dark malted grain. The final colour can come from what other ingredients are used later.”

In Canada, today’s brewers are aware of proper grain selection and malting, paying close attention to where they source their grains.

“We use global grain resources as each recipe is specific in its ingredients. Our more complex malts are from across Europe, especially from Germany and England,” said sales and marketing director Elena Rogozhkina of Carling, Ontario’s Norse Brewery. “But we do get a lot of pale malt from the Canadian Prairies.”

Rogozhkina also pointed out how grains are prepared for the brewing process.

“Ours are treated beforehand so we can begin brewing with them once they come in. The company Gilbertson and Page do a good job of malting the grain for us,” she said.

Other breweries have taken steps to do grain treatments from malting to milling right in their workspaces with many added benefits.

“We have a twenty ton silo at our space here,” said Highlander Brewing Company founder and brewmaster Brian Wilson at his worksite in South River, Ontario. “Having the silo is great: we save twenty percent in milling fees.”

When it comes to the costs of grain as a necessary supply to their business, Canadian breweries are constantly on the watch of how grain is priced in the marketplace. Grain values often determine what beers are brewed in a particular season and how much cost batches will be.

“There are many factors—federal/provincial government regulations, supply and demand—that drives much of the grain pricing. It’s complex, for sure,” said Rogozhkina. “Seeing what the grains sell for keeps us financially aware and how we determine costs for operations and our final products, from our Dark to Red to Pale Ales.”

“You charge for the beer based on what specific grains and spices you use,” said Wilson. “And that goes back to the grain itself and also keeping specialty malt on-hand to brew up particular or experimental beers. You have beechwood smoked malt for our Blacksmith Smoked Porter, dandelion leaf and lemongrass for our Lion Grass Specialty Ale, then other types for our seasonal beers. They are all different strains and, as such, priced differently. But that’s what we pride ourselves on brewing. It’s specific ingredients, many of them organic, going into handmade and hand filled beer that’s unique.”