by Mike Retzlaff
Sometimes they’re called crystal malts and sometimes they’re called caramel malts. The names seem to be used interchangeably. For a long time I thought it was simply a matter of culture as to which name applied to the same thing. In general, the Brits call them Crystal, Americans call them Caramel, and the Europeans call them Cara Malts. Some claim there’s a difference and others claim there is no difference. Who’s right?
Well, there is a difference. The late Greg Noonan (brewer and author) stated that crystal malts are made by wetting green malt and stewing the malt at temperature to accomplish the mashing. The conversion is complete before heating the malt to develop color, aroma, and flavor. Caramel malt, while also stewed, is not completely converted before being slowly heated until reaching the desired properties.
Dave Kuske of Briess Malting agrees that the difference is in the processing. Caramel malts are processed in a kiln at lower temperatures. Crystal malts are drum roasted. After stewing the green malts at about 156o, as is done in both processes, the crystal malts are then heated up to 460o which would cause the malts to combust if not in the controlled atmosphere of the drum roaster. Caramel malts in the kiln are heated to around 250o. The time spent at these temperatures determines the malt’s color and flavor.
Crystal malts are crisper in flavor and aroma than caramel malts. Noonan stated that most maltsters produce caramel malts as they are quicker and generally cheaper to produce than crystal malts.
It seems prudent that if you are producing an English style ale, the crystal malts from British maltsters would be the way to go. Almost any other maltster produces caramel malts.
It is interesting to note that Bairds Malting in England makes a number of crystal malts. Carastan and light Carastan are in their product line and are both crystal malts but bear the “Cara” in their respective names.
One physical difference is that crystal malts are glassier than caramel malts. CaraPils, CaraFoam, and other dextrin malts have that same basic quality. They are tougher to crush in a roller mill.
Terry Foster (beer writer and author) says, the term crystal malt should be reserved to describe malts that are truly crystal in that they exhibit even and consistent crystal like, glassy kernels which is possible only by roasting. If we accept this terminology as being appropriate, then it should be realized that all crystal malts are caramel (type) malts, but not all caramel malts are crystal malts.
Briess Malting is really a specialty maltster. They are tiny compared to many other N. American concerns. They utilize a number of drum roasters in different sizes. Briess offers Extra Special Malt which is a hybrid crystal malt. It is drum mashed just like most any other of their products but is roasted at a higher temperature to develop roasted malt properties at a color of 130 oL.
Crystal and caramel malts are available from light to dark as CaraPils @ 1.3 oL or CaraFoam @ 1.8 oL to Special B @ 150 oL. Simpsons also makes an Extra Dark British Crystal Malt @ 135 oL – 165 oL.
Crystal and Caramel malts serve several purposes in the formulation of a beer recipe. They can be used for back sweetening a beer, to adjust the color, to augment the aroma, to provide foam stability, to add body and, not the least of which, to enhance the flavor. Most brewers use 20 oL to 60 oL malts in Pale Ale and IPA recipes but they need not be restricted to just this small spectrum of beers.
These malts are used to achieve a balance in the color/aroma/flavor of a particular brew. The higher numbers assigned to a malt equal darker colors and more intense flavors of dark fruit, toffee, and caramel. Crystal and Caramel malts should be fine tuned during recipe development to achieve the desired results.
Keep in mind that the darker the crystal or caramel malt you use, the quicker the beer can react unfavorably. At the higher end of the color spectrum, a little more becomes too much rather quickly. The beer will go from a dried fruit flavor and aroma to bitter and harsh. You should approach that formulation precipice carefully and keep good notes (both formulation and tasting.)