I’ve always wanted to try malting my own grain. Malting involves germinating the grains by soaking them in water, then, after the grains have sprouted, stopping the germination by malting the sprouted grains in a kiln (or your oven).
I never had sufficient motive to try it, since it’s such a pain in the rear. But I’ve been trying to perfect my “Entish Brown Ale” recipe, and it seemed that Buckwheat might work well with that.
If you recall from Tolkien’s The Two Towers, when the hobbits Merry and Pippin were visiting Fangorn in one of his ent houses, they drank two different kinds of ent draughts. One was a light, refreshing sort of drink while the other was an earthy, satisfying drink.
I’ve always wanted to try something like that, and my Entish Brown Ale is an attempt to re-create that Ent draught.
When I read that buckwheat adds a hearty, earthy flavor to a beer I had to try it for myself to see if it would contribute to my Entish Brown Ale.
So I bought some buckwheat.
But I didn’t want to add it directly to my Entish Brown Ale. I wanted to get a sense of what it does on its own.
I decided the best test would be to add some buckwheat to a fairly plain English Bitter recipe. That way I could get a sense of what the buckwheat contributes, and decide if it would help my Entish Brown Ale recipe attain its earthy, satisfying, “liquid bread” feel.
I went to the local health food store to get some buckwheat. All they had were “groats,” which didn’t look like what I wanted.
“Groats” are grains without the hulls. I wasn’t sure it was the right thing, but I bought them anyway, and then went home and did some more research.
I learned that buckwheat isn’t actually a cereal grain, like barley, or wheat, or rye. It’s a pseudocereal. If you’re curious, consult Wikipedia.
The standard procedure for making beer is (1) get some grain, (2) germinate it, (3) malt it, to stop the germination, (4) mash it, to extract the sugars, (5) brew it, to make your wort, and (6) ferment it to make beer.
But what do you do with buckwheat? I knew I had to germinate the stuff, but how?
I found this helpful page on sprouting buckwheat groats, which is the first step to making a beer with the stuff.
That page is about making “sprouts,” which you might put on a sandwich, or in a salad, but the same method words fine for making beer.
I soaked the groats in water for 20 minutes.
Then I washed them every fews hours for a couple days, and in a pretty short period of time — less than 3 days — I had sprouted me some buckwheat.
This was quite a bit easier than I thought.
The next task was to malt the stuff, so I did a little research on how that’s done.
Generally speaking, you want to cook the grains at a low temperature for a long time — like 24 hours. But I’m impatient, and I’m not thrilled with the idea of leaving the oven on while I’m sleeping. Call me paranoid if you like, but it rubs me wrong.
I tried to malt them at 220 for an hour one evening, which got them to the color I expected, but they weren’t quite dry. So I called it quits, and then the next day I had to cook them for several hours at 170, which is the lowest my oven will go.
Eventually I got a cookie sheet full of home-malted buckwheat.
I started with two pounds of buckwheat groats, but after malting I only had 1 pound 13 ounces of malt. I assume some of the weight was lost from the sprouts themselves, which may have burned off in the malting process.
Barley malt needs to be cracked to expose the grain inside the hull. I honestly don’t know if the same thing applies to malted “groats,” which have no hull, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to grind them up.
To mill my homemade malt I had to cheat a little. Typically I use the grain mill at Maryland Homebrew, where I buy all my supplies. But I didn’t feel like making a special trip just to run some malt through their mill, and … honestly … I wasn’t sure it was going to work anyway.
Most grain mills are set to crack barley malt, which is about twice the size of a buckwheat groat. So I used a method I had read in an old homebrew book. I cracked the malted groats in my blender.
It’s not the best solution, but it worked.
Fortunately I had thought ahead and bought some rice hulls for the mash. More on that later.
Most modern malts are “fully modified” and don’t require a protein rest, so you can get away with a pretty simple mashing schedule. A single-step infusion mash at 150 (or thereabouts) is usually all you need.
I didn’t know how well I had malted my buckwheat, so I wanted to put my malt through a thorough regimen. I decided to do a step mash with a protein rest.
Here’s the recipe for Buckwheat Best Bitter.
6 pounds Maris Otter
1/2 pound Crystal 40
1 pound 13 ounces buckwheat malt
1/2 pound rice hulls
1 oz. Cluster hops (7.4% alpha) 60 min.
1 oz. Fuggles (4% alpha) 10 min.
1 T Irish moss at 10 Min.
Here’s what it all looked like as I did the “stove top” (actually propane burner-top) mash.
You can see that it’s quite messy, and that’s why I bought the rice hulls. I’ve had stuck mashes with small grains before (like rye), so I didn’t want to make a problem for myself with the buckwheat. Adding rice hulls to the mash helps create a better filter bed, and I hoped it would make up for the lack of hulls in my buckwheat.
The mash schedule went as follows.
15 min. at 120F
25 min. at 140F
25 min. at 155F
Mash out at 170F.
After the mash out I added the rice hulls. (They didn’t need to be in the pot during the mash.) Then I poured the whole mess into my picnic-cooler style lauter tun.
I sparged once with 2 gallons of 170F water, then a second time with 2.5 gallons of 170F water. Even with the rice hulls, the sparging was slow, and I was afraid I was going to have a mess on my hands. If I were to do this again, I would double the quantity of rice hulls.
After a week of fermentation I kegged the ale and let it carbonate for a week.
Then … the big test. What unique flavor does buckwheat add? Does it make me dream of Fangorn Forest and drinking ent draughts that nourish the bones and curl the hair on my toes?
Alas … no.
I had a glass this evening. It was quite good, but (at first) I didn’t taste any particular contribution from the buckwheat. I expected an earthy, wholesome, nutty flavor.
It seemed rather like what I would expect by adding regular wheat malt to a bitter recipe.
But there is a slightly peculiar flavor (I assume it’s from the buckwheat) that you pick up mostly in the aftertaste. I wouldn’t describe it as “earthy.” It’s somewhat bitter, slightly astringent, and seems to dry out the beer. It’s not at all unpleasant. And … well, maybe slightly “earthy.”
I don’t think this is the secret ingredient I’ve been looking for to transport me to Fangorn Forest and make the hair on my toes curl. I may try a pound of it in my Entish Brown Ale, but it’s not exactly what I’m looking for.