Flavor Depth from Grains in Dark Beer Brewing

by Brad Smith on October 8, 2021 · 0 comments

This week I look at how to create layers of flavor in your darker beers by mixing grains from different groups and judicious use of harsh zone malts.

Depth in Beer Flavor

I want to first introduce the concept of depth in beer flavor. Depth refers to a beer that has layers of flavor and is not single dimensional. A good example of this is the Porter beer style. I’ve been to many craft breweries that make single dimensional Porters, that reflect a single type of malt like Chocolate Malt or Black Patent malt. While this can be enjoyable, I far prefer a Porter that has complexity in flavor where you can taste more than one layer in the finished beer. In my mind, flavor complexity is a feature of English styles and great in many darker beer styles.

Achieving Flavor Depth

While you can gain some depth with the proper choice of yeast and hops, the bulk of dark beer flavor depth comes from the grain bill. And if we remember the basic tenets of recipe design: having a focused goal and simplicity, then we don’t want to simply dump everything but the “kitchen sink” into our dark beer. Having too many malts without purpose will simply result in muddled flavor and not the layers we are seeking.

So how do you achieve flavor depth? I always start with a large percentage of base malts – something in the 85% or higher range. In reality you don’t need a ton of specialty malts to make a great dark beer, and having too large a percentage of specialty malt will hurt fermentability.

Next to achieve depth I will usually pick three specialty malts from different malt groups. Why three? You can get some depth from two malts, but not as much as three. Using more than 3 specialty malts often muddies the waters and makes it difficult to distinguish individual malt layers. So three is a good number if I am seeking depth of flavor layers, though you could go with two if you are trying to achieve a milder darker beer like a brown. Also I will eliminate the crystal malt from certain beers like Bock where their sweetness/fruitiness is simply not appropriate to the style.

There are four basic malt groups: base malts, kilned malts, crystal/caramel malts and roast malts. Each has a distinctive flavor profile and character. Combining malts from the different groups is what develops depth of flavor. Given the bulk of the malt bill is a good base malt, the we generally want to pick a single malt from each of the remaining groups to get depth.

Which malts to choose from each group is primarily a function of what style of beer we are brewing. If I’m making a milder dark beer like a brown or bock, I will choose milder flavored malts or even de-husked/de-bittered malts like de-husked carafa, often at the lower end of the color scale. I might also choose light to medium crystal/caramel malts to add some sweetness and fruitiness to the beer. For something like a sweet stout I might also pick the milder versions of the dark grains. Obviously a really robust Porter or dry Stout would go with harsher flavored malts, and might pick very dark crystal/caramel malts to provide a sharp note.

Another critical consideration when choosing specific malts is the harsh zone. which I covered separately in this article. Grains in roughly the 70-200L range are exceptionally harsh with flavors like burnt toast, burnt marshmallows, tannins (sucking on a tea bag flavor), and other harsh notes. Even grains on the edge of the harsh zone like brown malt and light chocolate malt display a lot of this harsh character. In general I reserve the use of harsh zone malts to styles like a Robust Porter or strong stout where their flavors can add value. Also I limit the amount of harsh zone malts to 4% of less of the grain bill. Using something like Special B, which is very harsh, in these small quantities will add some roasted dark fig, dark fruit character to the beer. Also you probably don’t want to add two harsh zone malts in a single beer.

If you want to try a beer recipe made using these principles, here is my Great Lakes Porter. It is a Robust Porter, but definitely has the layers of flavor we are talking about. I did end up using Crystal 60 in it though it probably would work well with Brown malt as a substitute. The Special B in this recipe adds significant character.

Thank you for joining me on the BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter or my podcast (also on itunes…and youtube for more great tips on homebrewing.

Related Beer Brewing Articles from BeerSmith:

Enjoy this Article? You'll Love Our BeerSmith Software!
  Don't make another bad batch of beer! Give BeerSmith a try - you'll brew your best beer ever.
Download a free 21 day trial of BeerSmith now

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: