Some homebrewers call themselves "hop-heads" because of their absolute love of hops' flavor, aroma, and bitterness. They search far and wide for the freshest hops and pour ounce after ounce into their beers, constantly pushing the IBU envelope, and dry-hopping every brew. I've even seen brewers who've used 6 or 8 different types of hops in one beer! It may sound kind of crazy, but if you love hops, why not? I can definitely identify with "hop-heads" - I love the aroma and flavor of hops, and I love the unique taste each hop variety can bring to homebrew - whether it's spicy, floral, or otherwise. But the bottom line is that personally, I am much more in love with the flavor of malted barley. Call me a "malt-head" or whatever other moniker you can invent - I simply love the smell, the sweetness, the flavor, and the hundreds of ways barley can be roasted, toasted, caramelized, and smoked. I've always wondered what it would take to malt my own barley and so for the last couple months I have been searching the internet for information on home malting. It seems that there are not a huge amount of people out there malting their own barley, but I was able to get some general information to get started.
The basic process of malting begins with moistening the barley seeds so they start to germinate (sprout). The germination process causes the starchy insides of the seed to be converted into sugar - the stuff beer's made out of! These sugars are designed to feed the baby plant until it can find its own nutrient source. After the seeds have sprouted to a certain point and contain as much sugar as possible, you dry them out to stop the process. Then you "kiln" them to complete the drying process and to give them some flavor, and you can even roast them for more color and flavor.
To make crystal malt, you have to mash the green (freshly sprouted) barley, and then cook it at a high temperature to crystalize the sugars. The fact that crystal malt has already been mashed is why extract and partial mash brewers are able to simply steep these grains for a short time in hot water instead of putting them through an entire mashing process - it's already been done!
So I decided that I wanted to keep the process as simple as possible and attempt to produce a basic pale malt, and a small amount of crystal malt to add body and flavor.
Next I searched for a good online source of barley seed. I have read that you can usually acquire barley seed at any local feed store for very cheap, but I didn't know of any feed stores in my town, and I was also concerned that a feed store would sell me a product more designed for animal use and not for malting. Finally I found http://www.amazon.com/Organic-Barley-25-Ornamental-Barleygrass/dp/B000E7MU2K. This company will ship you a 25 pound bag of premium unhulled barley seed that has been produced completely organically. The fact that it was organic just made me more excited, since I entered into this whole undertaking to eliminate factory processing and to produce the ultimate fresh malt in a hands-on way. So the absence of chemical pesticides on the grain just felt even more natural and earthy. The barley was pretty inexpensive, but due to the weight the shipping was almost as much as the actual grain, and it took about a week to arrive at my home in Florida. I devised the following plan: I would break the malting up into two larger batches (designed to make the usual 5 gallons), and one small batch (approximately 2 gallons). The first large batch would consist of a pale malt and a small amount of crystal malt to make a hoppy American Pale Ale, the second large batch would be more roasted with a larger amount of crystal malt to make a toasted lager, and the leftover small batch I would smoke in my buddy Erin's smoker! (yet another thing I've always wanted to try).
Next I got a cheap digital scale from Walmart. I've always wanted one for making precise hop measurements, and now I had the perfect excuse, as I would need to separate the grain into portions (it would be impossible to malt the whole 25 pounds at once). So I weighed out 10.5 pounds of grain and dumped it into my 4 gallon brewpot. The first thing you have to do is clean the grain by filling the pot with water and running your hands through the grain. All the dead seeds, pieces of plant material, and other useless crap floats to the top and can easily be skimmed off and removed. The water turned slightly brown so I poured it off, then filled the pot up with fresh water to begin the soaking process.
I have read many different opinions about soaking the grains, but most call for some time under water, then some time with the water removed, until the grain begins to sprout. I basically did what I could around my busy work schedule, but it turned out to be approximately 6-8 hours wet followed by 6-8 hours dry and so on. I stirred the grains whenever I could, and within about 24 to 48 hours they started to "chit", which is when the first tiny root begins to protrude from the seed.
At this point I gave the barley one final rinse and then dumped it into three trays. Actually, two trays and one large wooden salad bowl (I have to work with what I've got). I covered the grains with loose plastic wrap, so that dust and bacteria would hopefully not fall into the grain from gravity (you can also use tin-foil). Many people use large clay pots for this stage, since they are porous and can absorb any extra water, but, once again, I just used what I had available.
During this stage of germination it is very important to stir the grains at least a couple times a day, as they actually produce heat during the process. This warm, moist environment is a perfect place for mold to grow, and if that happens you pretty much have to throw everything out and start again. I read online that the inside of a germinating pile of barley can exceed 104 degrees! (About the temperature of a jacuzzi) All I can tell you is that when I stirred up my grains, I scooped barley into my hand and could definitely feel a noticeable warm sensation! So just stir them as often as you can, and if your grain starts to smell like it's rotting, it probably is.
The germination of barley should take anywhere from 3-5 days. If you work full-time, like me, starting the process early in the week (like Monday night) will allow you to perform all your drying and kilning on the weekend, when there's more free time. This is important, since I would not reccomend leaving the oven unattended while at work.
You want to dry the barley and stop it from growing when the leave shoot (acrospire) is 75% to 100% the length of the kernel. But when the acrospire begins to grow, at first it grows inside the kernel! So the only way to find out it's length is to break open a few seeds and gently pull out the shoot. Another good indication is if the roots have developed up to 2 or 3 times the length of the seed - at this point the acrospire is usually at least 75% in length. Also, I noticed that once in a while you will find a kernel that has burst open and the acrospire is actually shooting out the side. It is very rare, like some kind of mutant or something, but it does allow you to easily see the length of the acrospire without breaking open any seeds. You can eat a few seeds at this point - they should have a sweet flavor - this means the starches have begun their conversion and it's time to dry the barley and lock in all that flavor!
But first, I needed to make my crystal malt. Basically, this involves mashing a portion of the sprouted barley (green barley), and then cooking it at a high temperature to dry it and caramelize the sugars. First, I weighed out the amount of barley to be mashed. Remember that at this point the weight of your barley is 40- 50% water, so you need to use practically double the weight that you eventually want to end up with, because after drying you will lose all that water weight.
Next, I put the barley into 4 small ziplock bags, sucked out as much air as possible, and sealed. I then heated up a couple gallons of water to 160 degrees and filled up my small mash tun, placing the bags of barley inside. No matter how hard you try to suck out the air, they will still float, so you have to place some kind of weight on top. I used a small sauce pan with my heavy glass sugar-bowl top inside for weight. When I closed the top the cooler lid sort of pushed the pan down (my mash tuns are made out of round Rubbermaid coolers), so I think my grains were pretty much underwater. After the 160 degree water hits your cool mash tun, and then after adding the grain bags, you should end up with a temperature somewhere in the low 150's - perfect! Now simply wait 1-2 hours - the same as mashing grain to make wort, except the grains never actually touch the water, so the sugars stay locked inside.
After that I removed the bags and dumped out the grains into my small roasting tray. I set my oven at 400 degrees and placed the tray inside (about halfway up). It takes a couple of hours, and you will obviously need to stir the grains every so often so they receive even heat. After a while you may hear some crackling sounds - this is normal, don't freak out! The caramelization has begun! At this point, monitor the grain closely and cook it as long and dark as you desire. If you want to create a "Carapils" style dextrin malt, simply dry the grains but don't darken them (this will add body to beer but not as much color or flavor). I kept mine in the oven as long as possible, and at a certain point the edges of the grain looked like they were getting burnt, so I removed them.
After that, I set the temperature at the lowest possible - 170 on my oven, dumped the rest of my grain into the two large roasting pans, and put them inside. I propped open the door slightly with a large plastic spoon. This keeps the temperature down (170 is actually a bit warm) and allows the air to circulate, aiding in the drying process. Once again, you must stir the grains as much as possible so they dry evenly. This takes 24-48 hours. My oven automatically shut down after 12 hours, and I had to reset the temp to continue.
When the grain is almost completely dry (chew some - it should be crunchy on the outside and slightly softer inside) it is time to "kiln". I set my oven at 250 degrees and kilned for about 2 1/2 - 3 hours. Stir often and, by God, enjoy that amazing smell that will now saturate your entire house!
The next step is to take the grain out of the oven, let it cool, and then remove the dried roots, which will now have turned brown and curled up. I accomplished this by taking small portions of grain and putting them into a wire-mesh strainer, and then circulating them with my hand at moderate pressure. Most of the dried roots fall off and pass through the strainer and the grains remain.
According to some of the internet posts I have read, it is best to then let the grain sit for a week or two before using it to make beer. I don't know why you need to do this, but for me it just simply worked out best since I wasn't ready to brew when my grains had finished the malting process. I left the grains in one of the roasting trays and covered them with tin-foil. I poured my crystal malt on top and it was definitely cool to see the contrast in color between the crystal and the pale malts.
That's it!!! I will blog again on my first "home-malted" brew day!
P.S. - I tried to take more close up pics of the grain chits and roots, but they kept coming out blurry on my camera. However I did manage to find a website with really nice germination close-ups posted by a dude who malts his own barley in the Phillipines. Check it out at http://beerme.wordpress.com/2007/04/09/challenge-ii-complete-malted-barley-at-home/
7/29/09: Just wanted to post a quick note after this entry. In case you haven't had a chance to read about all my brewing experiments with homemade malt, I was unable to get my efficiency higher than 35% (!!!) using the "home-malted" barley (very, very poor). I even tried germinating my seeds longer until the acrospires had all achieved about 100% seed length, and also milling the grains very thoroughly, but still had very low efficiency. I believe the only factor left to change would be the temperature at which I dried the grains. My oven will not go below 170 degrees F, and all the literature I read online called for around 50 degrees C (or 122 F). As you can see above, I left the door of the oven open and tried to circulate the grains often, but I am thinking that maybe the heat was still too much and managed to damage the potential of the barley in some way. To remedy this, the only option that I personally would have available would be to dry the grain in the sun. I live in south Florida, so this would work great in the wintertime, but right now in the summer it rains every day and I wouldn't be able to leave anything outside for long. So I can try the sun-drying technique this winter and report back afterwards. Also, I could try a different barley source. I thought I had the coolest barley around, but who knows? I would be interested to see if a different source may be better suited for malting. Good luck to anyone out there trying this, please post a comment if you have anything to add. Thanks.
8/16/09 - I almost forgot, here is another method I tried using a rigged up fan to circulate the heat and try not to damage the grains. The fan blows air into the oven, and then it escapes through the side of a towel I put over the opening. Results were questionable: