We took 5 pounds each of 4 base malts: Gambrinus Pale Malt, Gambrinus Pilsen, Gambrinus ESB (similar to Marris Otter), and Gambrinus Vienna (sort of a base malt). We then made 4 different batches with the four different malts in one very long day of brewing. Hopefully this post can provide you useful information in selecting which base malt you will use for your own batch of beer. We only used malt from Gambrinus Malting Corporation because they are local, thus their malt is the easier to attain. Also, we are lazy people.
Each batch was made the same.
Mashed at 69 Celsius for 50 minutes (making the wort fairly unfermentable, leaving the F.G. higher). As for hops, .25 0z Columbus boiled for 60 minutes (roughly 20 IBUs, hopefully letting the malt shine through). Fermented with one 7g package of Coopers Ale Yeast at 16 Celsius. Each batch was roughly 10 litres.
Pale Malt Batch: O.G. 1.051, F.G. 1.010 (10 litres)
Pilsen Batch: O.G. 1.049, F.G. 1.008 (10 litres)
ESB Batch: O.G. 1.054, F.G. 1.011 (8.5 litres)
Vienna Batch: O.G. 1.048, F.G. 1.011 (10.5 litres)
(From left to right: Pale batch, Pilsen batch, ESB batch, Vienna batch)
We only let the batches ferment for 10 days at 16 Celcius. We primed each batch with 2.5oz of dextrose, then sampled the beers first one week after bottling, then two weeks after bottling, and finally three weeks after bottling.
The Pseudo-Scientific Tasting
We selected people from our circle of friends and family to judge the beers based on their colour, head, malt flavour, how well bitterness is hidden, aroma, and body. Of course, since we’re serious in our attempt to commit shoddy scientific research, some of our participants were blindfolded, mainly because it is rather fun to watch blinded people try to drink beer.
Pilsen: The lightest of the beers, but you have to pay close attention to notice. Also held the most carbonation.
Pale: Slightly darker in colour than the Pilsen, but very similar.
ESB: Pretty much identical to the Pale, which was interesting considering the higher O.G. of the ESB. Stronger, thicker head as well.
Vienna: Considerably darker than the other three beers. The strongest head of the three beers. It was the only beer that was easily identifiable.
(From left to right: Vienna, ESB, Pale, Pilsen)
Pilsen: Very little smell; slightly sweet, and slightly fruity. Most people said it had nearly no aroma.
Pale: Slightly grain smell and slight fruit. Fairly similar to the Pilsen.
ESB: Difficult to tell the difference between this and the Pale. Same slight grain smell, though slightly more fruit aroma (likely due to the O.G. of the ESB being higher)
Vienna: Sweet, toffee, honey aroma. Very bold compared to the other three beers.
Pilsen: Very grainy, and slightly acidic. More bitter than the other three beers, resulting in a grapefruity taste from the Columbus. Very dry. Not very sweet at all.
Pale: Rather tangy citrus taste (from the hops). Less bitter than the Pilsen. Nearly no malt flavour.
ESB: Heavier body with more of a malt taste as well. Little bit of citrus taste. A well-rounded taste.
Vienna: Sweet and malty. Nutty taste as well. A hint of caramel. A viscous feel.
We noticed three problems from our experiment.
First, we used Columbus hops. Columbus hops were attractive because of their high AA%; furthermore, Columbus was the only bittering hop we had in stock when we were brewing the experiment. The problem is that Columbus hops leave a fairly grapefruity finish (unlike other cleaner bittering hops like Magnum). Thus during the tasting of the beers, nearly everybody said there was a grapefruit taste, preventing the taste of the malt from shining through completely.
Second, we used Cooper’s Ale yeast. We used it because it was cheaper than buying 4 packs of liquid yeast, and our local hombrew store did not have Nottingham at the time. However, Cooper’s Ale yeast produces more fruity esters, which clouded the aroma and taste of the malt. Most people noted a fruity aroma from all the beers (excluding the Vienna), and about 50% noticed fruity tastes in the beers (including the Vienna).
Third, the ESB had a higher O.G. than the rest of the beers (1.054, compared to 1.048, 1.049, 1.051). Sadly our little homebrewery can only get so accurate when trying to hit the same O.G. (we used a different sized pot to make the ESB batch, thus the evaporation rate was higher). It is not a huge difference, but it possibly could have influenced people’s preferences.
Overall, the experiment provided us with more details about the flavours of each malt. It was notable that most people could not distinguish between the Pilsen, Pale and ESB malts. If we pressed them with questions about which one they preferred and why, 38% of the people selected ESB, but there was no consistent reason why people preferred the ESB malt (reasons ranged from “it is sweeter” to “it had a better hop flavour”, so I think people may have just been inventing reasons to justify their preference). So when choosing a base malt for your beer, be aware that likely only people with the most refined of palettes (likely other homebrewers) will notice the difference between beers (Vienna malt excluded).
Pilsen malt was the grainiest tasting malt. It also hid the bitterness the least of the malts. It was also the least sweet, resulting in a very dry beer (likely because the F.G. was lower).
Pale malt was actually the least flavourful malt. While the malt hid the hop bitterness better than the Pilsen malt, it lacked the Pilsen malt’s strong grain flavour. Pale malt is somewhat like an absorbent blank canvass: it will hide some of the flavours, but it will not produce its own flavours.
ESB malt was generally people’s favorite malt. People often noted it was slightly more malty and bready. It was also a bit sweeter. It had the thickest body, and people often said it was easy drinking. Admittedly, the O.G. of this beer was 1.054, higher than the other beers, so this may have influenced people’s opinions.
Vienna malt was the most distinct of the four malts (likely because it isn’t a typical base malt). It was considerably darker in colour. It had a sweet, malty, toffee like aroma, and it tasted nutty and sweet as well. The self proclaimed beer connoisseurs (often a very obnoxious folk) preferred this beer, while the lager drinkers often found this beer as unpleasant and nasty (especially when they were blindfolded, as I imagine the beer was different from their expectations of what beer should taste like.)