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August 22, 2014
Last updated

Making Alcohol: The Importance of Enzymes

Chief Operating Officer at Clawhammer

Why are Enzymes Important?

Enzymes are important because they convert starches from grain into fermentable sugars. Starches are made up of long chains of glucose molecules and have to be broken down into smaller molecules in order for the yeast to be able to turn them into alcohol. If these starches are not broken down by enzymes, then the yeast are not able to perform their job. The most common enzymes used in brewing/distilling come from malted barley. Malted barley is the most commonly used malted grain in commercial distilling as it has a high diastatic power. Diastatic power is the measurement used to measure the malt’s ability to break down starches into simpler fermentable sugars during the mashing process.

How Are Enzymes Created?

During the malting process, barley is dried to a moisture content below 14% and then stored for for 5 to 6 weeks to overcome seed dormancy. The grain is then steeped in water to allow it to absorb moisture. This causes the barley to sprout. When the grain have a moisture content of around 46%, they are air dried over the course of a number of days. Once the malt has been air dried, it is kiln-dried to give the grain its color and flavor profile. 

Barley develops enzymes during malting that are needed to convert starches into sugar during the mash process. A typical grain bill for a whiskey mash normally consists of malted barley with other added grains such as corn, rye or wheat. Hot water (hot liquor) is added with the grain which allows the enzymes in the malt to break down the starch in the grain into sugars. During the mash process, enzymes in the malted barley will convert starches into sugar. Without enzymes the starch would not be converted into sugar and the yeast would not have any sugar to ferment into alcohol. It is critically important to use CRUSHED malted barley and not regular or flaked barley.

Remember, distilling alcohol is illegal without a federal fuel alcohol or distilled spirit plant permit as well as relevant state and local permits. Our distillation equipment is designed for legal uses only and the information in this article is for educational purposes only. Please read our complete legal summary for more information on the legalities of distillation.

Emmet Leahy is the Chief Operating Officer and lead product developer at Clawhammer Supply, a small scale distillation and brewing equipment company. He loves the process of developing new equipment for making beer at home just as much as he does using it to brew his own beer. He's also passionate about teaching people how to use distillation equipment to produce distilled water, essential oils, and with the proper permits, fuel alcohol and distilled spirits.

  • Can you substitute the malted barley with steam rolled Barley?

    Posted by DORKe on February 16, 2021
  • If I used sweet feed for mash do I still need enzymes? If I do need enzymes will any kind do? I am going by this recipe


    Posted by Rob on February 05, 2019
  • In response to will if you have no answer yet. You can use the fruit you grow to make a wine fermentation then simply distill into Brandy. If you have a thumper keg you can add additionalfruit to it for more infused flavors, and a higher a.b.v. than just single distilling and less time than a second distillation.

    Posted by Jon on December 31, 2018
  • I would like to know what are great substitutes for Malted barley please. I have Celiac Disease and cannot consume wheat, Rye, are Barley.
    I do have Ten acres with fruit TRees and bees and would like to make my own shine, wine, or Hard cider.

    Posted by Will on August 23, 2018
  • Very good article thank you very interesting

    Posted by David on May 26, 2018
  • Can you use sugar instead of malted grains?

    Posted by JAcob on April 06, 2017
  • is just malted barley used or can malted corn be used and how much per gallon

    Posted by kevin on October 14, 2016
  • Wow this is an interesting article. I hope to see more in the future.

    Posted by Caleb Standke on August 04, 2015

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