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Old Malt, New Tricks: Adding Flavor and Interest with Heritage Varieties

Some brewers are turning to heritage barley varieties for malts that can add new character to their beers—and attract new fans.

Ben Keene Feb 28, 2022 - 13 min read

Old Malt, New Tricks: Adding Flavor and Interest with Heritage Varieties Primary Image

Purple Egyptian barley growing in eastern Washington state. Photo: Courtesy Palouse Heritage.

Jim Matt gets excited talking about his Uncle. He doesn’t have endless anecdotes, and he won’t go on and on about family reunions, but it’s a subject he clearly loves discussing. And when the topic of his Uncle comes up, the conversation quickly turns to malt. That’s because Uncle—a British-style mild that Matt first developed as a homebrewer some 17 years ago—has been on tap at the Rhinegeist Brewery since opening day.

“The reason . . . we use Maris Otter in Uncle goes beyond the slightly nuttier and richer flavor profile of that malt,” says Matt, Rhinegeist’s founding brewer and chief science officer. “Maris Otter always gave us better extract efficiency when we used it. Maris Otter–based beers also lautered much better on our original brewhouse. And most importantly, my intention was to have a somewhat less fermentable wort with a higher level of dextrins in the finished beer to prevent such a small beer [4.2% ABV] from feeling a little too ‘thin,’ if you will.”

Rhinegeist brews Uncle 20 barrels at a time. Maris Otter is 85 percent of the recipe’s base malt, with Rahr Pale Ale malt making up the remainder, while a handful of specialty malts add color and flavor. There are 770 pounds (350 kilos) of Maris Otter in each batch of Uncle. It also turns up in the Calfé coffee milk stout, Crumb Cake imperial red ale, and a number of limited releases. Matt says that in his hands, wort brewed with this heritage malt “usually lauters extremely well, clarifies well, and has excellent extract efficiency.” Even so, the overseas shipping adds to its cost, so he has considered substituting a domestically grown heritage malt for Maris Otter. The one thing he won’t do, however, is stop brewing Uncle anytime soon.

“I know classic styles are not ‘in vogue’ at the moment, but I can’t emphasize enough how passionate I am about that beer and [how much I] love watching people in the taproom enjoy it,” he says.

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Author of The Great Northeast Brewery Tour, a contributor to The Oxford Companion to Beer, and former editor of BeerAdvocate, Ben Keene has judged beer competitions across the US and has spoken at industry conferences and conventions. He lives in Seattle.