Get Based: Typical Styles of Base Malts Explained

There are many factors that differentiate beers from one another and the grain used plays a strong role in beer. Choosing your base malt will decide the direction of your beer. They generally make up for the majority of your malt profile, and will produce the most of your sugars that will ultimately be converted into alcohol.

That's right, specialty malts are just for color and flavor!

Within any batch of beer, the base malt acts as the underlying foundation of the beer, and generally makes up around 60{a60bef903c54612bed20edb95d22500dcc3da56ac2b90be5eb4391998d03cdd5} to 100{a60bef903c54612bed20edb95d22500dcc3da56ac2b90be5eb4391998d03cdd5} of what you'll be mashing. In many ways, the base malt in beer is similar to the flour that is cakes and other baking.

The character of the base malt is particularly important if the beer recipe does not contain a large number of specialty malts, as the flavor of the base malt will be more evident in the final product. There are many different types of base malts, many of which contain a large number of different varieties. However, in general, there are five main types of base malt that are used in the majority of beers.


Pale Malt

This is the single most common type of base malt and it is the only malt used in approximately 95{a60bef903c54612bed20edb95d22500dcc3da56ac2b90be5eb4391998d03cdd5} of beers. This type of malt is lightly colored, and used on its own it produces beer that is medium yellow in color.

Pale malt is also commonly known as two-row, as it is made from two-row barley. In reality, this name is a little bit strange because most malts are made from two-row barley, but nevertheless, it is a very common name for pale malt. Another name that is sometimes used is lager malt, although this is not as common.

There are two types of pale malt that can be used in beer. These are two-row and six-row. Six-row tends to be a little less expensive than two-row, and because of this is it commonly used by commercial breweries. However, in general, the savings aren’t worth bothering with for homebrewers, as six-row can produce a sharper and less desirable taste, making two-row a much safer choice for homebrewing.

The advantage of pale malt is that it can be used in just about every type of beer and is inexpensive. This is the base malt that should be chosen if the beer involves a large amount of specialty malts, as in this case the flavor of the base malt does not really matter and pale malt is one of the cheapest options.

2 row vs 6 row barleyBreiss 2 Row VS Rahr 2 Row

2 row is probably one of the most common types of base malts because of it's versatility. In fact, it's a blend, so I liken it to blended whiskey, wine, and coffee – things which are created from a variety of sources to appeal to a mass audience. Along the same lines, 2 row makes itself useful for many types of beer styles. I've used it in several of my own recipes.

Some claim that it's essentially the same malt, while others say that the Breiss is more expensive because of higher quality of grain.

6 Row

This is another example of a pale malt, but instead of two kernels of barley per “row”, there are six. Who would have guessed. Not only are there more grains, but the barley itself is fatter, contains more proteins & enzymes, and produces a different flavor. 2 row is considered to have a full, malty flavor, while 6 row produces a grainier flavor.

6 row is generally used in beers where a lot of specialty malts are used (that don't convert to sugars), and it seems to be a distinctly American brewing technique.

Pilsen Malt

Pilsen malt is actually a specific form of pale malt that is used for creating pilsners and other lagers. This form of malt has a very light color and tends to be crispier and thinner in taste than regular pale malt. Because of this, the malt tends to have lower levels or aroma and maltiness, but this can be desirable if one is making a pilsner.

traditional Czech and German pilsners contain only pilsen malts, with no other malts included within the mix. There are also American and Belgian style Pilsners that can make use of this grain.


Vienna Malt

This form of malt has more kilning than traditional pale malt, and contains a highly malty flavor profile that sometimes contains some grassy flavor. In general, Vienna is used in the creation of lagers in the Vienna style. This is a style that is similar to Oktoberfests, but with a lower alcohol content. Vienna malt is also used in other types of beer, particularly in German lagers, although it the malt type should not be used in Pilsners. Those beers would include Oktoberfest, Marzenbier, and Maibock.

It is possible to make beer using just Vienna malt, but in general a better decision is to also make use of a specialty malt for flavoring or use Vienna malt in conjunction with another base malt.


Munich Malt

Munich Malt has a large variety of coloring, although the norm is for Munich malt to be light in color. This malt produces a toasty edge and are used in the creation of Munich-style lagers. Additionally, Munich malt is often used within Oktoberfest recipes, frequently in conjunction with Vienna malt. Both the pale and dark types are typically used for dark German lagers.


Maris Otter

This type of malt is generally considered one of the best in the world. They still use traditional floor malting techniques. Maris Otter is known for it's full flavor and bready characteristics. It makes a great base beer for English Ales.


Golden Promise

Very similar to Maris Otter and sometimes known as the Scottish version of the its English counterpart, Golden Promise lends enough uniqueness to warrant experimenting with. Sweeter and less toasty that MO, GP can be used as your only base malt, or in a mixture of pale ale malts. Traditional Scottish Wee Heavys use ONLY Golden Promise barley (removing a portion of the malt and boiling it down to a syrup to produce caramelly characteristics and a stronger beer)


Other Base Malts

Categorizing base malts can be a little challenging, because categorization is somewhat subjective. In this case, both Vienna malt and Munich malt are somewhat controversial as to whether they should be classified as base malts, as both are rarely used on their own. The reason that these do tend to be classified in this way is that historically they were base malts.

Pale ale malt is a variation of pale malt, and the most significant difference is a darker coloration, which also has an influence on the flavor of the malt. Though sometimes considered a base malt, it can also be listed as a light malt. As a general rule this type of malt tends to have a strong malt aroma and is very flavorful. This malt is particularly effective within ales, particularly in Belgian-style amber ales as well as within traditional English ales.

There are also other types of base malts that have not been considered here, particularly ones that are made from other grains, such as wheat, millet or sorghum. And with the amount of corn that Budweiser users, or rice that TsingDao uses, you might consider is their base beer!


For further reading on types base malts, including more malts, in depth descriptions, beer characteristics, and other comments, check out Beer Tools, Beer Advocate, and Brew Your Own.


photo credit: epicbeer

photo credit (2 row vs 6 row): Brian Steffenson


About Nate

I created this website almost two years ago when I first started homebrewing. Like my brewing, it's been through many changes over the years.

I'm a full time online marketer and brewing beer is my hobby. You'll find a mix of all topics related to craft beer and homebrewing at xBREWx!

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