When brewing and extract beer you will usually be adding some specialty grains to the batch. These grains are used to add in specialty flavors like chocolate, rye and honey into your base beer. But they are also made for the extract brewer because Crystal malt only needs a short steeping time to extract the sugars.
Crystal malt or Caramel malt as it is also called is a staple of the home brewer especially for the extract brewer. It was originated in the United States and it is high in nitrogen and sugars. But the attribute that makes it such a good malt for extract brewing is that the sugars are pre-caramelized in the grains. Crystal malt is usually Dampened and roasted in a metal drum before the kilning process, which caramelizes some of the sugars allowing brewers to easily extract them from the malt with a short steep. All you have to do is steep the grains for 20-25 min to extract the sugars that would normally take an hour or more in the mashing process for normal grains.
Crystal can come in many different colors to add to the character of your beer. These colors are achieved by kilning the malts for different lengths of time. The flavor that this malt will produce is in general a sweet toffee or caramel like flavor. But depending on the roast or color of the grain different flavors can be added to the base malt. The darker the Crystal malts, the more caramel like flavors you should receive. The higher temperature the malt is kilned (basically roasted) at the darker the grain will get. As well as adding a dark color to your beer the darker crystal malts can give a roasted malt flavors that can be favorable for darker stouts and porters. In the opposite direction, lighter kilned crystal malt will not add much color to a beer but will still add some body.
When you’re looking to buy the crystal malt, the higher the number after the name the darker the roast of the malt is. A Crystal 10L is the lightest of the crystal malts. It will give you some sweetness and light caramel flavor as well as assisting with the body and mouth feel of the beer. On the other end of the spectrum is the Crystal 150L will give you a heavy full caramel flavor as well as darken your beer greatly.
As an extract brewer, crystal malt should be your bread and butter specialty grain. It’s easy to use and can aid in a variety of characteristics you are trying to achieve in your beer. Understanding your malt will make it easier to make your own recipes and give you a better idea of how your beer is going to turn out.