Nature equipped seeds with enzymes to break down their starch reserves to fuel germination by the plant’s embryo, allowing it to sprout. It didn’t take long for early man to discover that sprouted barley also made a wonderful beverage: beer.

Brewers learned how to take advantage of barley’s naturally high enzyme content and developed the malting process. They used the result as the base for beer. Distillers also malt grains to start production of alcohol.

Barley’s natural alpha- and beta-amylases liberate fermentable sugars, a fact that attracted the attention of bakers, and diastatic (enzyme-active) malted barley flour and malt extract became tools to optimize baking performance. The high enzyme content of diastatic malt allows use at very low levels, typically 1% (flour weight basis), which adds no color or flavor to the finished baked product.

Degrees Litner (°L) measure the enzymatic activity of malt by expressing the ability of cereal malt to produce sugar. The higher the number, the more the activity.

The term diastatic reflects amylase’s earlier name, still used today by brewers — diastase. Malt enzymes break down under heat, and the result is called nondiastatic malt. In flour and extract form, the nondiastatic (enzyme-inactive) styles give flavor and sweetness to baked foods.

“Diastatic malt is made from whole grain barley malt that has been dried gently at low heat to keep all of the enzymes alive,” explained Judie Giebel, technical services representative and AIB Certified Baker, Briess Malt & Ingredients, Chilton, WI. “Because it has active enzymes, diastatic malt can break down starches and create finer and softer texture in baked goods. This helps to keep the baked goods moister in return, extending the shelf life. In yeast-raised recipes, diastatic malt also replaces sugar to feed yeast and brown crusts.

“Nondiastatic malt extract is malted barley that has been naturally converted to a sweetener using its own enzymes to convert the starches to sugars,” she continued. “This product has no active enzymes and will not break down the dough matrix. Malted barley extract provides nutrients for the yeast, additional flavor and the sugar needed to give yeast its starting boost.”

Additional drying will give malt more pronounced malty or nutty flavors. Nondiastatic forms can be processed further to bring out stronger flavors, and deep roasting will yield malt flours with distinct cocoa notes and dark brown color, capable of replacing up to 25% of the cocoa in a formulation.

The term malt normally refers to malted barley, although other grains can be malted for specialty food uses. Wheat and rye, for example, can be made into diastatic and nondiastatic malts. Liquid malt extracts are syrupy in nature. The technology lends itself to creation of syrups from other starch sources such as tapioca and white sorghum, suitable for gluten-free baked foods. Coextracts of malt with other grains — oats or rice, for example — are also available.

Honey is the base for mead, another fermented beverage popular in the ancient world. Today, however, it’s more likely to be found in beer. “Local beer crafters blend more than one floral honeys into a special recipe to create unique and distinctive ales and beers,” said Alan Turanski, vice-­president of sales for GloryBee Foods, Inc., Eugene, OR.