Crystal vs. Caramel Malts: Are they so different?

ImageCrystal or Caramel malts are listed on nearly every recipe from porter to IPA, bitter to schwarzbier, all-grain and extract (with grains, of course), but why is it sometimes called crystal and sometimes caramel? Is there a difference or are these two words totally interchangeable and just up to the writer? My brew software generalizes them together and so do most websites (including this one), so whats the deal?

I’m sure many would just say they are the same in every way, but thats not really the truth. Sure they are similar in usages and share the same colouring levels and similar flavours, but there are real differences. 

In a nutshell, what are crystal/caramel malts? 

They’re a grain (typically barley, but might also be wheat, rye, or some other grain) that have been malted and put through a process to covert their starches into sugars, like mashing in the husk. The grain is then roasted/kilned to the desired colour. The resulting malt is ready to use and doesn’t need to be mashed (though it can be) since the starches are already converted. This makes a great grain for steeping when making beer with just extracts. It adds some fermentable sugars to the wort, but it adds a lot of longer chain sugars that help build body and good head retention. They also add some sweetness and flavour, and add colour to the beer. As you can see, this is a pretty useful malt and its no wonder why its in so many recipes. 

So, whats the difference? 

It comes down to history first and process second. Crystal malt first developed in Britain in the lat 19th century, most likely in response to the decrease in the gravity of British, and therefore malt and flavour, of beer that was being produced. These malts allowed for the lower grain bills to still produce a favourable beer.

When home brewing was first made legal (again) in the US, there was a flood of these European “crystal” malts into the US, but the domestic maltsters were already producing a similar product but calling it “caramel” malt. Much of the time it was exactly the same process, making it the same malt, but in some cases it was made differently.

For simplicity sake (and to make a distinction), I will call them “crystal” and “caramel” malts, though many times malts these names are used interchangeably by maltsters, causing more confusion. I will use the names to indicate the difference between the process, but you will have to get confirmation form your supplier (if you can) as to what process was used to produce the malt you’re buying. If you can’t get the information about the malt, if you crack a bit of it open and 90+% of the kernels are a glassy, crystallized sugars inside, then its crystal type. If its uneven and a mix of different centres to the malt, its caramel type.

The biggest differences between crystal type malts and caramel type malts comes down to the equipment used and the heat of the process. In both cases, the barley (or another grain) is malted and then this “green” malt is steam-cooked in the ‘sacch rest temperature range (60-70 C, 140-158 F) to convert the starches to sugar.

The crystal malt name refers to the “crystallization” of the sugars. In this process the malt is “cooked” in a roaster that can, if needed, achieve temperatures in excess of 700 F. The conversion process is quicker in the roaster because it can easily get to temperature while the grains remain moist. Conversion can be complete in under an hour and then the malt is roasted. The grain is heated to the point of “crystallization” of the sugars, called “hard crack”, this is above 300 degrees F (anyone who has made candy will know what this is about). This is a caramelization of the sugars and makes a toffee/caramel taste that varies with the degree to which the malt is roasted. 

Caramel malts are produced in a kiln and it is not nearly as hot as a roaster. The temperature of a kiln can’t make 300 F to produce the “hard crack” caramelization like a roaster can. This process is similar in that the malt goes in wet, but because of the limitations on the temperature, and the size and shape of the kiln, the malt starts to dry on top before the conversion is complete causing the process to be a lot longer. Also, since it can’t get as hot, to achieve the colour it takes longer, and the way the kiln works means the grains can be unevenly roasted. This longer, cooler process will produce some caramelization, but not to the degree of the roaster. The flavours produced are from Maillard reaction (a chemical reaction with sugars and amino acid: heat + amino acid + sugar = hundreds of flavour compounds and a discussion for another post) that may be similar to caramel flavours that varies with the degree the malt is kilned.Image

So, its two sides to the same coin?

Yes and no. Yes, as in it produces malts that are similar in usage and flavours. No, as in the malt produced is chemically different and will have a slightly different flavour (Maillard verse caramelization). Due to the way the colour is formed from one type to the other, a crystal malt with a Lovibond colour of 40 degrees (Crystal 40) and a caramel malt of 40 degrees (Caramel 40) probably won’t taste quite the same, but could be used interchangeably to produce a similar colour and body in a beer. Crystal malt tends to be a cleaner, more pure sweetness, while the caramel malt, though sweet, has a more bready, biscuity flavour.

Most of the time it will be crystal types malts that are found on the market. The majority of the European maltsters will be producing the crystal type and a good portion of the North American masters will be the same. It’s not to say one will be better for your beer than the other, but it is to know the differences, know what you want to achieve, and understand how to get there. And always, let your tastebuds lead the way and keep good notes.

For more reading on this see Terry Foster’s and Bob Hansen’s article in the November 2013 issue of Brew Your Own magazine or this article from Briess

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