What is Crystal Malt? A Brewer's Guide to Using and Making Caramelised Grains

This complete guide covers everything a brewer needs to know about crystal malt varieties, using them in recipes, and even making your own from base grains.



8/31/20235 min read

a large pile of seeds that are brown
a large pile of seeds that are brown

What is Crystal Malt? A Brewer's Guide to Using and Making Caramelised Grains

Crystal malt, also known as caramel malt, is a specially processed roasted malt that adds body, sweetness, and colour to beer. The sugars inside the barley are caramelised, creating unique flavours and a glassy, crystallised texture.

Both extract and all-grain homebrewers use crystal malts to improve the flavour profile of ales, stouts, porters and more.

This complete guide covers everything a brewer needs to know about crystal malt varieties, using them in recipes, and even making your own from base grains. Read on to become a crystal malt expert!

How Crystal Malts Are Made

Crystal malts undergo a unique process that sets them apart from standard base malts:

  • Starts with standard 2 or 6 row barley malt, or sometimes wheat or rye

  • Grains are soaked and germinated normally to activate enzymes

  • Then wet grains are heated to mash temperatures, converting starches to sugars inside the hull

  • Finally, they are kilned at higher temperatures, caramelising the sugars and creating the signature crystal malt flavour and texture

This internal mashing and caramelisation process is what distinguishes crystal from pale, Vienna, Munich and other standard malts. It results in unfermentable sugars that add body and residual sweetness to finished beers.

The length of roasting time determines the colour depth and intensity of flavours. Dark crystal malts take on rich nutty, toffee and burnt sugar notes. Lighter versions provide caramel and biscuit flavours.

Crystal Malt Varieties and Attributes

Crystal malts are differentiated by Lovibond rating, a scale measuring colour intensity. Common varieties include:

  • 10L - Very light gold colour, adds sweetness

  • 20L - Light copper colour, raisin and caramel notes

  • 40L - Reddish amber, caramel and nutty flavours

  • 60L - Deep ruby red, pronounced caramel and toffee

  • 80L - Dark mahogany brown, rich toasted marshmallow

  • 120L - Nearly black, intense burnt sugar and dark fruit

Beyond basic barley crystal, there are also wheat, rye and specialty caramel malts:

  • Carapils - For head retention and body, not much flavour

  • CaraWheat - Softer wheat version of caramel malt

  • Carafoam - Similar to Carapils, minimal flavour impact

  • Caraaroma - For orange, berry and cherry notes

  • Carared - Very high Lovibond for deep red colours

See the table below for more details on common crystal malt types:

Using Crystal Malt in Beer Recipes

Crystal malt is widely used by homebrewers and craft breweries alike. It benefits both extract and all-grain recipes.

For extract brewing, simply add crushed crystal malt to your steeping grains. No mashing is required since the sugars are already converted and caramelised inside.

In all-grain recipes, replace 5-10% of your base malt with the appropriate Lovibond crystal malt. Amounts over 10-15% can lead to overly sweet beer. For stronger colour and flavour, try small additions of 40L or higher crystals.

Crystal malts complement many beer styles:

  • American Pale Ales - Add light crystal like 20L for body and balance

  • English Bitters - Moderate crystal malt ~40L provides the expected caramel flavours

  • Porters - Mix crystal 60L and chocolate malt for complexity

  • Scotch Ales - High amounts of crystal 80L+ give intense caramelisation

  • Stouts - Small quantities of 120L add dark dried fruit notes

Making Your Own Crystal Malt

Advanced homebrewers can even create custom crystal malts from base grains using a process similar to commercial production:

  • Soak grains of choice (pale malt, Munich, rye, etc.) for 24 hours until fully hydrated

  • Drain excess water then spread in a thin layer on sheet trays

  • Bake at 70C for 2 hours to activate conversion, stirring occasionally

  • Dry completely at 100C, turning grains every 20-30 minutes

  • Kiln at higher temperatures (150C+) to caramelise sugars and develop colour

The key is controlling temperature and time to achieve the desired Lovibond rating and flavour profile. Take notes each batch and experiment until you perfect your ideal homemade crystal malt!

Historical Background of Crystal Malt:

Crystal malt, a pivotal element in the realm of brewing, traces its roots back to the early malt houses of England. The meticulous process of creating this malt, encompassing the stages of soaking, germination, and kilning, reflected a culmination of brewing expertise that has been honed over centuries.

The transformation of standard 2 or 6-row barley into a glassy, crystallised entity marked a significant milestone in malt evolution.

Over time, the use of crystal malt has become a hallmark in modern brewing, especially in crafting distinctive ales, stouts, and porters. The bridge from historical malt kilns to contemporary microbreweries signifies the enduring essence of crystal malt in brewing craftsmanship.

Comparative Analysis:

When juxtaposed with other malts like pale, Vienna, or Munich malt, crystal malt shines due to its unique process and resultant flavour profile.

Unlike standard base malts, crystal malt undergoes an internal mashing process that caramelises the sugars within, rendering a sweetness and body to the beer that is unparalleled.

This caramelisation not only enriches the beer with a full-bodied texture but also imparts a spectrum of colours, ranging from light gold to nearly black, making it a versatile choice for brewers aiming to achieve a specific hue or flavour in their brews.

Crystal Malt, A Sensory Description:

The allure of crystal malt lies in its sensory appeal. A beer brewed with crystal malt entices with its rich colour, from the light gold of a 10L to the dark mahogany of an 80L crystal malt.

The aroma is an inviting prelude, often carrying hints of caramel, toffee, or nutty notes reminiscent of autumn evenings. The taste is where the crystal malt truly shines - a harmonious blend of sweetness balanced with a full body.

When compared to popular commercial beers like an English Bitter or American Pale Ale, the nuanced flavours and colours from the crystal malt add a layer of complexity and richness that elevates the drinking experience.

Technical Aspects:

Navigating the technical labyrinth of brewing with crystal malt demands a nuanced understanding of its characteristics. One common challenge is managing the sweetness level; an overuse of crystal malt can lead to an overly sweet beer, overshadowing other flavours.

The Lovibond rating is a crucial guide for brewers to choose the right variant of crystal malt to achieve the desired colour and flavour profile.

Moreover, ensuring a balanced mash process, avoiding over-crushing the malt, and blending it judiciously with other malts are essential steps to harness the full potential of crystal malt while avoiding common pitfalls.

Recipe Suggestions:

Crystal malt is the hero ingredient in many classic beer recipes. For instance, an English Bitter benefits from a moderate addition of a 40L crystal malt, lending it the iconic caramel undertones.

In a robust Porter, a mix of crystal 60L and chocolate malt creates a complex, hearty flavour profile perfect for chilly evenings.

Experimenting with different Lovibond ratings of crystal malt in your homebrew recipes can lead to exciting new flavour landscapes, inviting both seasoned and novice brewers to explore the creative spectrum of brewing.

Pairing Suggestions:

The flavours brought out by crystal malts in beers are a gastronome's delight when paired with the right foods.

The caramel and toffee notes harmonise beautifully with the savoury flavours of roasted or grilled meats. A beer brewed with a darker crystal malt, exuding rich, nutty flavours, pairs wonderfully with smoked cheeses or hearty stews.

On the other hand, a lighter crystal malt beer with its subtle sweetness complements spicy dishes, creating a palate-pleasing balance.

The art of pairing amplifies the joy of savouring beers crafted with the essence of crystal malt, making each sip a journey of flavour discovery.

Get Creative with Crystal Malts

Crystal malt is a brewer's best friend, providing sweetness, body and beautiful colours. Follow the guidelines here to incorporate it into your recipes with confidence. And don't be afraid to deviate from style norms to create unique crystal malt combinations. The caramelisation possibilities are endless!