Choosing the Best Base Malts For Your Beer

by Dane Wilson | Last Updated: October 11, 2022

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A base malts can be looked at as the core essence of a beer. Sure, there are other ingredients in beer, such as oats, wheat, and other grains. But malted barley far outshines these other ingredients in terms of how much of it exists in the brew. Because of this, choosing the right base malt for your beer is crucial.

In today’s post, we’ll be going over what base malts are as well as the different types of malt out there. We will also delve into a little bit of the malting process in hopes of giving you clarification on how malting fits in with the homebrewing process. So, if you’re ready, let’s dive into all you’ve ever wanted to know about base malts for beer. 

Table of Contents

What Is a Base Malt?

A base malt is a malt that has enough diastatic power to convert to starch during mashing for the production of beer and malt alcohol. Because yeast needs something to feed on during the fermentation process, a base malt’s starches provide just that. Base malts usually make up the largest amount of malt in a beer. 

Most base malts will be light and pale in color. They come in both 2 row and 6 row varieties, with 2 row being the most popular. Base malts are rarely heated for very long during the production process which is why they remain so much lighter than other malt types. This enables them to release more starch during mashing, whereas darker malts may not. This heating process is often referred to as the “kilning process”.

Kilining times will determine the darkness of most base malts and other malt types. It will also affect the finished beer color as well.

Once in hot water for mashing, enzymatic activity makes it possible for starches in the barley to convert to simple sugars and free amino nitrogen. In turn, this makes it easy for yeast to digest during fermentation. A beer recipe may also contain other malts or other specialty malts in addition to a base malt. Your malt’s ability to convert to sugar on its own is known as diastatic power and is usually communicated in terms of numbers. 

Remember that darker malts may have less enzymatic activity and will be more unlikely to convert to sugar because of the longer kilning process. The longer kilning times destroy the enzymes needed to cause this to happen. Thus, the malted barley may not have enough diastatic power to self-convert. 

All of this may sound like one major headache. One important thing to keep in mind is that a beer recipe will almost always have enough base malt to do the trick. Thus, you may not have to worry about the types of grains in your grain bill as much as long as you are using a reputable recipe. 

base malt

Malt Manufacturers

It is important to know that there are brands of malts that sell the same types of malts. This is important to know when brewing at home because you may be tempted to pick a certain brand over another thinking it may affect the taste. In truth, most brands of malt taste very similar to others. This means that there’s typically no benefit to fussing over which brand of malt to buy. 

Rather, it’s most important that you choose the malt that will yield the flavor you’re looking for, rather than focusing on the brand. This will help you get that distinguished flavor you’re looking for without wasting too much time worrying about which brand might be better than the other. 

Is 2 Row a Base Malt?

Yes, 2 row is a base malt, and in fact, it is the most popular type of base malt around the globe. Besides 2 row malted barley also comes 6 row. Six row malted barley, though usable, isn’t as popular as 2 row. Still, when it comes to corporate beer production, 6 row barley can be used for a variety of purposes.

Because you are likely a home brewer, you are best off using 2 row malted barley. Two row barley consists of two heads, hence the name, whose grains tend to grow larger than 6 row malted barley. This produces a signature mild malty flavor that beer fans know and love. Six row barley tends to be described as having more of a grainy flavor, that is unique in its own right.

Remember also that there are often other grains, such as wheat and oats, used in the malting process. These grains will have their own starches which produce enough enzyme for the yeast to convert to alcohol and CO2. Still, it is mostly barley that adds that signature malty flavor, and thus, often serves as the largest percentage of grains in a given beer recipe.

What Are the Base Malts?

There are several kinds of base malts available for you to try in your next homebrew.

The following is a list of base malts:

  • 2 Row Pale Malt
  • Pale Ale Malt
  • Pilsner or Pilsen Malt
  • Maris Otter 
  • Vienna Malt
  • Munich Malt
  • Wheat Malt
  • Rye Malt

2 Row Pale Malt

As previously mentioned, most base malts will use 2 row pale malt. This includes beers made by people brewing from home but is the case with most craft beers as well. The 2 row pale malt has a light and delicate bread crust or cracker flavor. It is light in color. It is the most generic base malt available, and also, is the most widely used across the globe. 

6 Row Pale Malt

Six row pale malt isn’t generally used for homebrewing but it’s still worth mentioning. It is often described as having a grainy flavor. It grows in heads of six rather than two, and grains are usually inconsistent in size because of this. Still, it has its place when it comes to corporate craft beer production.

Pale Ale Malt

Though some people might think the pale ale malt to be the same as 2 row base malt, this isn’t actually true. The two differ in the sense that the pale ale malt is kilned a touch darker than the 2 row, which yields a more malty flavor. Still, the wort color is about the same and most beer fans aren’t likely to distinguish major differences between the two in a finished beer. 

Pilsner (or Pilsen)

Although 2 row and pale ale malts are light, Pilsner beer (or Pilsen) is the lightest beers you can get. Also, depending on the grain bill, you may also notice these beers to be a bit sweeter. Be careful when using Pilsner as a base malt in high percentages though. Homebrewers have complained about the flavor being a bit like creamed corn. 

This is likely due to the production of Dimethyl Sulfide. To prevent this from happening, you’ll need to switch up your brewing technique a bit . When making your wort, boil it with the lid off, make sure you boil it well, and then cool your wort quickly to keep that off-beat corn taste in the beer at bay. 

base malts

Maris Otter

A Maris Otter malt is for brews in need of a toasty and nutty flavor. This is a popular British version of malt that is slightly sweeter and has more body than other versions. Because this malt is kilned for a bit longer, its diastatic power is lower than the 2 row. Thus, may give you a sweeter finished product than would a 2 row beer, which is much to the fancy of those who prefer that sweeter beer taste. 

Note: Another beer in this category includes the Golden Promise malt. It is another British-style malt that is sometimes referred to as Maris Otter Light. Like its predecessor, it also offers bready, light, and sweet notes. It was largely popular amongst the Scottish, and even today, it is said to be the best base malt for British and Scottish-style brews. 

Vienna Malt

The Vienna Malt, surprisingly, is oftentimes not considered to be a malt at all. It is composed of only a slightly malty flavor, though it harnesses the ability to encompass the vast majority (if not 100%) of the grain bill. For this reason, Vienna malt is indeed a base malt.

Beer styles like Festbier and Maibock are usually found with Vienna base malts, though it is mostly used in Vienna Lager. It is often described by brewers as having a distinct taste similar to that of raw bread dough.

Munich Malt

This especially malt offers a richer flavor than your bread-dough reminiscent of Vienna, as it offers a toasty and sweet taste, similar to that of honey. Like Vienna, Munich Malts can be used by craft brewers to encompass 100% of the drink especially when essenced with traditional German hops. 

Wheat Malt

A wheat malt is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of brewing with malted barley, a brewer may choose to brew with 100% malted wheat. In fact, when brewing your next beer at home, you may wish to opt to use all wheat instead of barley. If you do, know that the finished product will likely be lighter in taste and aroma, and will have a slightly acidic flavor profile. 

Rye Malt

Why not try a rye malt on your next brew day? When you do, just be careful not to exceed 50% of the grain bill. Even at 10%, you’ll be able to taste some of the rye, but of course, the more you use, the more you’ll taste. You’ll need to combine this grain with other base malts when brewing. But even when combined with others, you’ll notice that the rye imparts of dryness to the finished product. Nevertheless, this ancient and long-standing practice of adding rye to beer may just be the distinct flavor you need!

Which Malt Base Is Best?

From toasty biscuity flavors to raw bread dough, there are many tastes that can be imparted to your beer depending on which type of malt you use. To know which malt is best you’ll first need to know what you’re going for.

For example, if you want a clean flavor profile with an inexpensive price tag, then 2 row malt is the way to go. If you want a lighter shaded beer, go with the Pilsner malt for Pilsner beer. If it’s a lager you’re after, you may wish to try the Vienna or Munich. As you can see, all of these malts have their place. Ultimately, however, it’ll depend on the taste you’re going for as to which one you’ll use. 

If you’re not super familiar with the malt scene or are new to beer making, it may be worth your while to invest in a book about malting. Malt: A Practical Guide From Field to Farmhouse by John Mallett is a popular pick and is often referenced even by those already skilled in brewing. When you’re learning to brew on your own it can help to have a reference like this. It can help you brew the best malts to be used in your home beer. 

Malt (Brewing Elements) by John Mallet (8-Dec-2014) Paperback
Buy on Amazon

Is Munich Malt a Base Malt?

Munich malt can be considered a base malt, though it is more of specialty malt, like Vienna. It has toasty and sweet taste and is often paired with traditional German hops. And though it isn’t usually the grain that makes up the entirety of a beer it certainly can stand on its own, with some beers encompassing 100% Munich malt. 

How Should I Choose the Best Base Malt?

Choosing the right beer malt takes a bit of research and planning. Of course, when you’re first starting out you can always stick to the 2 row malt as this is the one most commonly used for home brewing and even corporate brewing. Nevertheless, you’ve got plenty of other options available to you. Part of the beauty of brewing at home in small batches is that you can use whatever ingredients you wish! 

So, how do you choose the best malt for brewing? Aside from knowing what taste you’re going for, you can also glean a lot of information from the manufacturer. A lot of times, the manufacturer will fill you in on details about the malt that contains pertinent information for your brewing needs. 

For example, you may be interested in knowing the protein content and moisture content of the malt you are buying. High protein leads to better head retention while less moisture is more likely to store better. Know, however, that not all beer malts will provide this information. Some may have more or fewer details depending on testing done in labs and what they choose to disclose. 

Another method to help you distinguish one malt from another is to consider the region it comes from. British malts, for instance, are known for more biscuity flavors very akin to distinct bread and malt. North American malts, on the other hand, are known to be more neutral. They’re also more reminiscent of grains and earthier flavors, making them different from their British counterparts. 

German malts can taste quite medicinal. Nevertheless, they also have malt characteristics to them that make them enjoyable as well.

All in all, there are multiple ways that you can determine what kind of malt might work best for you. It really depends on the flavor, color, and aroma you’re going for. Each malt will yield something different depending on its kilning method, as well as its region of origin. Some malts, as discussed earlier, may even be made of grain other than barley such as rye and wheat. 

Storing a Base Malt

Storing a base malt in a cool dry place is ideal, particularly because base malts aren’t kilned at high temperatures. Base malts don’t typically keep for long amounts of time whereas other specialty malts might. For reference, you can expect some other malt types to last about 12-18 months, whereas a base malt may only last 6 months. Therefore, it is important that you keep a close eye on your base malt, and be sure to taste it for staleness or “off” tastes.

Note: Another way to test for malt freshness is to use a scale. Weigh the malt before you store it and again once ready to use. If you’ve noticed that the malt has picked up a lot of weight, you can bet it has a lot of moisture in it and may no longer be as fresh as you may have hoped.

How to Choose a Base Malt: The Options Are Plenty

When choosing a malt for brewing, there is a lot to consider. Thankfully, there are plenty of options available that are just as affordable as they are versatile (such as 2 row pale malts). Having said that, you shouldn’t feel as though 2 row pale malts are the only types you can use. On the contrary, there are several malt types to choose from, all of which will yield different flavors, colors, and aromas to your finished beer.

Choose from malts made exclusively from barley or pick from malts made from wheat and rye. Be sure to focus your attention on the grain rather than the brand. Also, be sure to keep a lookout for the region from which the grain came as this may give you some insight into what to expect from it.

Remember that certain malts will mash differently depending on their kiln time and type. The best thing to do is to do your research and know the flavor you’re looking for. With this information in mind, it will be much easier to choose a base malt that best suits you.