Back in Black: The Truth About Black Patent Malt
Author Kristen England
Issue November 2007
Online Date Tuesday, 30 October 2007
Many articles about specialty malts talk about the history of a malt, how it came into being or how three hogsheads of it appeared on a ship’s manifest in 1780 or whatever. That sort of historical information may be interesting in the abstract, but what interests me the most is practical information I can use in my home brewery. With that in mind, I’d like to kick off a series of articles discussing three of the biggest, baddest and darkest grains we brewers use, namely black malt, chocolate malt and roasted barley. In the series, I’ll teach you the functional uses of the malts and present a few commercial clones that highlight the malt in question. First up, the dreaded black malt.
A Black Mark Up Against Its Name
If there ever was a malt equivalent of the crazy uncle that lives under the stairs, black malt (also called black patent malt) would be it. Few people use it, most people don’t think they like it and everyone is afraid of it. Why, you ask? Because all the current literature tells you so. A usual description goes something like this, “Black malt lends a very sharp, acrid, burnt flavor whose harshness is beyond that of both chocolate malt and roasted barley.” Sometimes, it is additionally described as “ashy.” To top it off, many sources advise brewers that it should only be used sparingly. With a sales department like that, I would stay away from this stuff too! Let me tell you, however, the assessment of black malt as a harsh malt that should only be used in small quantities is W-R-O-N-G! When used properly, in the right beer, nothing can replace black malt for what it lends to a beer. Black malt primarily gives a highly roasted flavor, that carries some bitterness and acidity. But it can also show a deep fruity character reminiscent of currants, blackberries or sultanas. It gives deep contrast to a round malty beer by giving it some elbows, without being pushy. Most importantly, even in very small quantities, it provides a drying quality that brightens up the finish of any beer.
How Black Malt is Made
Black malt is made from fully-modified pale malt, containing around 5% moisture. In contrast, some other specialty malts, including crystal malts, are made from “green” (undried) malt. Plump, full-sized kernels — as uniform in size as possible — are selected because smaller kernels would heat up too quickly in the intense roasting process. The malt is then placed in a roasting drum and rewetted. Next it is kilned at 221–233 °C (420–450 °F) for up to four hours. The exact time depends on the size of the batch. David Kuske, Director of Malting Operations at Briess says that they roast 6,000 lbs. (2,700 kg) at a time. During roasting, the malt loses around 10–15% of its original dry weight.
The temperature of the kiln needs to be tightly monitored. If it rises to 250 °C (480 °F), the malt can turn to charcoal and catch fire. As the malt is kilned and develops its dark color, its progress is carefully monitored. Kuske says that one tool used by Briess is a device that crosscuts the malt, so the interior of the grain can be inspected. Pitting in the endosperm is a sign that the roasting has gone too far.
The color of the malt increases as roasting time increases. Interestingly, though, if roasting is extended too far, extractable color can actually decrease. Given the long, intense roasting period, almost all the volatiles are driven off, leading to a malt that — in stark contrast to its reputation — is actually fairly “mellow” compared to other dark roasted grains. When the desired depth of roasting is reached, it is sprayed with water over a period of 10 minutes. The water cools the malt and stops the development of color. Black malt actually has a moisture content (around 6%) higher than most other specialty grains. The moisture content gives the malt some added stability while it quickly cools the malt.
Another interesting fact about black patent malt is that — unlike pale malts — it is nearly sterile. Some commercial breweries, in fact, use black malt (or black malt flour) in their fermenters rather than the mash tun.
The color of the malt varies from around 470 to around 620 °L and it has an extract potential around 1.025. (In other words, a pound of black malt would yield a specific gravity of 1.025 when mashed in a gallon of water.) Most of the extract from the grain is not fermentable.
Some maltsters offer debittered black malt, black malt that has had its husk removed. The intent is to produce a malt with the roast character, but without the bitterness associated with the husk.
In dark beers, black malt can complement other dark malts and grains such as chocolate and roasted barley. It can also be used successfully in conjunction with the darker crystal malts. If you have a dark beer recipe, such as a porter or stout, that uses one dark malt for all of its roast character, substituting a blend of dark grains — including black malt — can lend a note of complexity.
Like all dark grains, black malt is an acidic malt. A mash of black malt only would yield a pH value under 4. In beers that use a substantial amount of it, adding carbonates — either from calcium carbonate (chalk) or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to your water may be needed to keep the mash in the proper range.
Another fact about dark grains is that the polyphenols (tannins) in their husks are more easily extractable, compared to paler malts. As such, dark grains can lend some astringency to a beer. In most beers, astringency is something brewers strive to avoid. In some beers, however, a little bit of drying astringency can be a positive attribute, as it is in many red wines (or oak-aged brews).
Black malt is frequently used to adjust color in pale beers. Schwarzbier and the “dunkel” version of many European Pilsners are colored with black malt. (Black malt flour and liquid color extracts are also used for this purpose). Just one ounce (28 g) in 5 gallons (19 L) of pale beer adds 5–6 SRM, depending on the Lovibond rating of the malt.
One usually finds black malt associated with higher gravity porters and stouts, but don’t let that fool you into thinking other styles won’t benefit from a hit of the “black stuff.” In a session-style brown porter, it lends a distinct heavy dark fruit note. When used in large amounts, it can play a big role in emphasizing ripe dark fruits and give a raisiny character to a big American stout. In an old ale, it emphasizes the vinous, port-like character of aged examples. Used in a Scottish 80/-, the drying character brings out the kettle caramelized malt.