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Malt: The Dark, Sweet Heart of Beer
Leave barley somewhere wet and dark for too long and it starts to sprout. At some point, some 6,000 years ago, a careless but lucky cook likely realized some damp grains were ruined and tried to dry them out before his boss came back and made him clean the tar pit as punishment. Raw barley is faintly earthy, tough, and not particularly fragrant. So the hapless baker was probably pleasantly surprised with that first batch of malt: the newly caramel-hued grains would have exuded a rich aroma hinting at their almost overwhelming sweetness.
As barley—or any other grain—sprouts, it begins to convert stored starches into simple sugars. This is the crucial step that makes beer possible. Yeast added to the sprouted grain devours those sugars, turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Those first beers held a number of advantages for early man: the alcohol content meant that they were generally safer to drink than water; once fermented, beer was much easier to store than grain; and, though simple in formula, protobeers were brimming with a surprising amount of nutrition. Historians speculate that this discovery may have been what caused our nomadic ancestors to settle down, farm, and invent the most primitive forms of the party.
Staring into the impenetrable darkness of a good stout, it is easy to see why you’d settle down for a good brew. That hue comes from chocolate malt, barley that has been roasted to an almost-burnt sweetness. Lighter roasts, with poetic names such as caramel, crystal, and amber, lend beer the rest of its distinctive rainbow of hues and flavors.