There are certain terms in brewing that we almost just accept as labels rather than descriptive titles, malted and unmalted seem to be two of them. As most of your career as a homebrewer will be spent working with malted grain directly or with a prepared malt extract, it’s rare to actually have to question what the opposite state is.
So what exactly is unmalted grain? The term ‘unmalted’ refers to brewing grains in their natural & unprocessed state after harvesting has been completed. Unmalted grain doesn’t have the vital enzymes for converting starch into sugar already activated through the malting process so mashing it to extract sugar would be futile.
This being said, there are some very useful ways to employ unmalted grains in brewing and there are also some advantages to sourcing it for your home brewery.
The malting process
Malting grains simply means germinating them until the starch converting enzymes we need for brewing are activated at which point the grain is rapidly dried and processed.
Malting can take several days and the initial phase involves floating the grain in water for period of up to 2 hours before allowing them to dry for a further 8 hours. This is normally performed several times in clean water until little shoots or sprouts occur in more than 90% of the grain. This is germination.
Once the grain is germinating, it is spread out and kept at around 64°F/18°C in a humid environment to encourage further germination and development of the enzymes needed for mashing later on.
After a couple of days, the grain is then dried with an even heat and the green shoots are removed leaving the husks of grain to be stored for brewing at a later date.
Unmalted grains do not undergo this process and are the same grains that you might find in your local stables or farm in the feeding trough for livestock. This being said, it wouldn’t take much to turn Black Beauty’s dinner into brewable grains!
Brewing with Unmalted grain
You’ve probably read or heard about unmalted grains being used in brewing and it’s probably why you searched for more information about it today. However, unmalted grain isn’t always used in the same way as malted grain and requires a slightly different approach
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100% unmalted grain brewing
It is possible to brew beer with 100% unmalted grain, but it’s not going to be as straightforward as using malted grains. So, for now, let’s imagine that you are in a situation where you cannot get your hands on conventional malted grain nor can you malt your own grain at home.
Well, the elephant in the room is that your unmalted grain doesn’t have any useful enzymes waiting in it, without which mashing won’t release sugar into the wort, without which yeast won’t be able to convert it into alcohol, without which you’ll be drinking grain water!
So, the simple solution is to add enzymes to the grain, and that’s exactly what you can do. Using something like Diazyme 4 liquid glucoamylase amylase enzyme (available on Amazon) will enable you to extract fermentable sugar from unmalted grains when mashing it. Ginger root, used in small quantities is also a good tool in breaking down starch in unmalted grains during the mashing process.
Although you may find that your efficiency in extracting fermentable sugars is lower than when using regular malted grains, you can still extract adequate amounts to create perfectly drinkable beer. For more information check out this thread.
As an adjunct
It is much more popular to use unmalted grains as an adjunct rather than as the sole source of sugar extraction. The degree to which unmalted grains are used in beer recipes has some historical significance. While many other countries use adjuncts freely, especially unmalted grains, German brewers were forbidden from doing so for centuries.
A law called Reinheitsgebot forbade the use of any ingredients other than grain, hops, yeast, and water for the sake of purity and public health (I assume). No such law existed in places like Belgium which, although only really a country for the last couple of centuries, really explored the boundaries of adjunct use in its brewing traditions. Practices are slowly changing across the globe.
Unmalted grains are used in a variety of beer types and recipes especially for an added bready flavor, to extract proteins for better head retention (see my article on this topic if suffering from a headless beer) and even to intentionally cause a hazy appearance, but often this is an unwanted side effect of its other benefits.
Advantages of unmalted grain
One of the main advantages of unmalted grain for any brewer who wants to brew in quantity is that you can buy it in bulk for a fraction of the cost of its malted cousin.
Of course, you will have to go through a longer process of mashing if you want to extract sugar from unmalted grain or go through the process of malting yourself. However, if you need to save a few bucks on a very large quantity for any reason, it is a really good avenue to explore. Remember that you can actually store grain for a surprisingly long time. Just how long? Read my article about it here.
Grain in its unmalted form is widely available almost anywhere in the world. Walk into your local farming or equestine supply store and you’ll be able to pick up pounds of the stuff for a very reasonable price. Compare to the same quantity of malted grain and you’d be much more out of pocket
According to many posts I’ve seen in various forums, in certain parts of the world where brewing beer is frowned upon or even downright against the law, it’s easier to get your hands on unmalted grains than malted grains.
If you have been stationed in a dry country but still want to brew beer (I am not suggesting you should) this could be the only option you have.
Disadvantages of unmalted grain
Sticky Unmalted Wheat
Unmalted wheat, in particular, can release a lot of beta-glucans, which are used in glue, into your mash. These proteins can affect the extraction of sugar from the starch present in the grain. So, if you are using a mixture of malted and unmalted grains in mashing, try not to exceed 10-15% of unmalted wheat to avoid a stuck mash.
As I previously mentioned, using unmalted grains as a cure for poor head retention in your favorite beer recipe can lead to a permanent haze in the beer. Again this is due to the proteins which we extract from the unmalted grain to help support the build-up of foam when pouring the beer and to keep it heaped up. Although cold crashing can help, you may just have to choose between clarity and head retention.
Does unmalted grain taste better than malted grain?
The answer here really is that there isn’t any noticeable difference to regular unmalted and malted grain. While it’s true that when using unmalted barley as an adjunct you will get that slight bready note, it’s nothing remarkably different to the malted kind. So, trying a 100% unmalted beer recipe shouldn’t have you running to the sink to spit it out!
It is absolutely possible to use unmalted grain in your brewing process as it has many different uses from helping to make the beer look great to allowing some brewers to actually make beer in places where it isn’t easy. The cost and abundance of unmalted grains also add to their appeal to brewers the world over.