Smoked beers are another style of beer that homebrewers either love or hate. Brewers are either enraptured by the smoky character, reminiscent of barbecue, or say the beer tastes like an ashtray. If you like smoky beers, there are commercially-smoked malts available, including Weyermann’s Rauchmalz (smoked with beechwood), Briess’ Cherrywood Smoked Malt and peat-smoked malts from various maltsters. However, if you’d like smoked malt from the hardwood of your choice, smoking your own malt at home is very straightforward.
I’ve smoked malt at my house on my Weber grill before. However, before writing this article, I spoke to Kevin Glenn, who not only brews professionally at Bastrop Brewhouse, but smokes small lots of malt for various breweries. Kevin’s birchwood-smoked malt went into Jester King’s Gotlandsdricka.
Kevin’s malt smoking setup is based around a 55-gallon drum (that formerly held liquid malt extract). The drum sits on four wheels that rotate the drum to stir the malt. There is a hole cut in the side of the drum, that seals with a Corny keg lid, so malt can be poured (through a funnel) into the drum. To the side, a hot box holds the heat source and hardwood.
Kevin cold smokes his grain, so the malt is only exposed to a little heat. He smokes two sacks of malt (100 lbs./45 kg) at a time, but only burns 3 or 4 charcoal briquettes to do so. The briquettes sit in a cast iron pan and heat the hardwood chunks, which are soaked in water so they will smoke. Before pouring the malt into the drum, he pours 4 cups of water over it and mixes it to even out the moisture. This moisture helps the smoke stick to the grain. Kevin runs his malt smoker for 3 to 4 hours, by which time the moisture has evaporated.
You can smoke malt on a smaller scale with just a grill or BBQ smoker. Here’s how.
Go to the hardware store and get a sheet of screen door material. (It’s cheap.) Cut the screen so it fits over the grate on your grill. Get a small spray bottle — preferably one that has volume markings on it — to apply the water to your malt. For every pound of malt, use half an ounce (15 mL) of water. Take the hardwood chunks of your choice — mesquite, hickory, pecan, oak, apple, etc. — and soak them in water overnight.
Light four charcoal briquettes and let them burn down to coals. While they are burning, take the hardwood chunks and wrap them in aluminum foil pouch. With a knife, make several slashes in the pouch to let the smoke out. When the coals are ready, place the pouch on top of them and then place the cooking grate and the screen door mesh on your grill. Once smoke starts coming from the pouch, pour your malt into a bucket and spray it with the water. Mix the malt around as you do to evenly coat it. (It will not be very wet.) Then, get it on the screen as quickly as possible. Close our grill, and open the air vents on the grill fully and wait for the wood to stop smoking. Finally, pour your smoked malt into a paper bag (or any container that isn’t air-tight) and let it sit for at least a few days before brewing with it. The time lets the malt “mellow” a bit.
You can smoke base malts or specialty malts. I heard of one brewer who took Weyermann Rauchmalz and re-smoked it with oak for an over-the-top level of smoke. The intensity of home-smoked malt is going to vary, so brewing with it can lead to mildly smoky beers or all-out smoke monsters. Until you get a feel for the intensity of the malt you smoke at home, it’s probably best to use only a pound or two in your first recipes. Or, brew a small, 1-gallon test batch to gauge it’s intensity.