We hear about it all the time. Malt liquor. Single-malt scotch. Malted milk balls. Chocolate malts. Michelob made a big deal a few years ago about bringing back an “all-malt” recipe. We use the term to describe other beverages. I love a black tea with a malty nose, myself. I am giving all of these examples to illustrate that we use the term “malt” a lot in our day to day life but I think that some of us are a bit unclear as to what it is and how it is used.
If you wiki it up, the word malt is described as: germinated cereal grains that have been dried in a process known as “malting.” Hmm. That is not great, really. Maybe we can break that down a bit.
Cereal grains are the seeds of various grasses that we use as a source of nutrition. Wheat, oats, corn, sorghum and others are all considered to be cereals. The one that is important to us above all of the others is barley. Barley is the cereal grain used to produce beer and important to the base of many distilled beverages. Barley is one of the eight different plants that made up the first domesticated crops in the Holocene period. There is evidence that suggests humans were in the process of domesticating barley nearly 12,000 years ago. Barley was a staple crop for both beer and bread for a significant period of time until its production was superseded by wheat. Barley was still extraordinarily important as a source of the sugars required to make beer as well as a common livestock feed. Some scholars suggest that the production of beer and bread was the key factor to the Neolithic switch from nomadic gathering to an agrarian lifestyle and the “creation” of civilization.
Though its discovery is well and lost to history and archaeological speculation, we can comfortably say that the malting process has not changed much in 12,000 years. Barley grains are, as I said, a seed. Seeds that contain starch (which acts as food for the young plant) and the other necessary components to use that food to fuel the growth of a new plant. When a seed germinates, certain enzymes that are contained in the seed are activated to cut apart the long starch molecules into sugar that the plant can use. Humans have found that we can use these enzymes to our advantage as well. The malting process begins with truckloads of barley grain being placed in large vessels and mixed with water. Over the course of a few days, the wet seeds begin to germinate (sprout.) The people running this process (maltsters) keep an eye on the levels of enzyme activation and when they are at their peak, the seeds are then drained and a drying process begins.