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What Is Malt?

What is malt?

In the first lesson of this series, What Is Fermentation? we learned that fermentation is the process of yeast converting sugar into alcohol. Plants such as apples, sugarcane, agave and grapes have sugar in them, ready for fermentation. But plants such as rye, potato, barley and rice also make alcohol, yet they don’t have sugar readily accessible. What’s a human to do?

Actually, rye, potato, barley and rice do have sugar in them–the problems is the sugar is imprisoned by starches–the sugar is currently in a starch state of being.

We need a way to enlighten these starches and transform them into sugar, and we do that with a process called malting.

Whereas fermenting is the process of yeast converting sugar into alcohol, malting is the process of converting starches into sugar.

Germination and malting


The malting process is really pretty simple. It is a natural process, we humans just force it into starting and then STOP it abruptly.

A natural process we take control of

Every living thing needs energy to maintain its life, or in this case, to grow bigger. If left to the natural order of things, grain would eventually need a substantial food source to grow into a tall, grownup plant. (Much like a growing child needs extra helpings of dinner). Sugar provides the massive amount of energy that grain needs to grow. And lucky for grain, sugar is located within itself, but it’s in the form of starch. No problem though, grains are fully capable of converting that starch into sugar.

The malting process simply tricks the grain into thinking the time has come for the sugar to be used. If we make the grain think that it will be growing into a plant soon, it will naturally create special enzymes whose sole job is to convert the starch into sugar. These special enzymes are unlocked during the germination process, so we kick start the process and then prevent it from going further.

From Germination to sprouting. Image credit: brozova / 123RF Stock Photo

From Germination to sprouting. Image credit: brozova / 123RF Stock Photo


Steps taken and facts learned:

There is starch in rye, barley and other grains.

Enzymes convert starch into sugar so the plant can use that energy to grow.

The starch in a grain will be converted into sugar when the seed begins growing (germinating)–if left alone, the plant would then use that sugar to grow tall and proud.

Malting begins the germination process so the plant creates the enzymes that will convert the starch into sugar.

After the seed begins to germinate and before it grows into a bigger plant, the growing process is halted. This leaves the sugar and enzymes.

The enzyme that malting creates is captured by the human and used to convert entire batches of grain into a fermentable product.


How malting works


Malting, check it out. Malting is the process of allowing the grain to start to germinate & sprout so that it will generate enzymes (amylase) which will eventually convert its store of non-fermentable starch to a [fermentable] sugar.

Here’s how it is done:

  • The grains are wet down and spread out on a floor so they can begin to sprout.
  • During this time the enzymes in the grains are activated and will begin to gobble up oxygen and break down the starches in the grain.
  • These starches that are being broken down are being broken down into sugar.
  • This is a lot of work and most things that are hard at work create heat, so the grains heat up. (Sweatin’ bullets from all that WORK!)
  • Human workers will rake the sprouting floor to keep the germinating grains cool and to prevent them from getting tangled up.
  • After the grains have been allowed to sprout (about 4 days), heat must be applied to STOP the germination process. (If you don’t stop it, the grains would try to grow into a plant and that’s not the point here.)
  • After the process has ended, you will have grains that contain the enzymes and the recently converted sugar.
  • It is that sugar that will be fermented into alcohol.


By adding water to the grain seed, the seed thinks it is “go time.” “Holy shit, there’s water!  Let’s GO!  Move it!  It’s time to grow!  Drink up!”

The whole point of malting is to create the enzymes that convert starch into sugar. Enzymes are the key to breaking down the starches into sugars. Without the enzymes, the starches in the grains would stay starches.


Malting Barley


The lead missionary

Barley is a special grain because it creates way more of those special enzymes than any other grain. Not only does barley create an abundance of those enzymes, it also creates powerful versions of that enzymes. So powerful in fact, that they are often used to convert entire batches of non-malted grain.

If malted barley is added to un-malted (not yet converted into sugar) wheat, rye or other grains,  the malted barley has enough enzymatic power to convert all of the starches in the batch into sugar. Without those malted barley enzymes, the starches in the un-malted grains wouldn’t be converted into sugar.

Malted barley is like one badass missionary–it has great conversion power.


Spirits and Wine Series

  1. How is alcohol made?
  2. What is malt?
  3. What is mash?
  4. What is distillation?
  5. What is Vodka made from?
  6. What is gin made from?

Or quench your knowledge about Popular Bar Drinks

[This series is based off of the expansive Sprits & Wine Master Class offered exclusively at  It is designed for servers and bartenders, but is perfect for anyone who wants to become a pro on these fashionable and useful subjects. Use coupon code “SHADOW” to receive a $20 discount.]

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