When you're a homebrewer without a grain mill, recipe formulation generally involves looking through lists of malts, whether on a spreadsheet or at the homebrew store, deciding how much of each malt you want in your beer, and then buying whatever your store has in stock. The fact that homebrew recipes and software refer to malts only by type—say, Munich, 2-row, or Crystal 60—can lead a homebrewer to believe that her work is done once she's decided the types and quantities of each malt she wants in her beer.
But brewing-grade malts—particularly the specialty malts that craft brewers prize—are not commodities. One maltster's Munich is not the same as every other maltster's. So if a brewer wants to make the best possible beer, she needs to select the best of all ingredients.
Since I bought a grain mill recently, I'm buying grains in bulk now. Before I commit to buying 10 pounds of any given specialty grain, I want to make sure that it's the best I can buy. So I bought a few pounds of specialty grains I use frequently—namely Munich, crystal, and chocolate malt—from a few different maltsters. I compared Dingemans (Belgian) Munich and Global (German) Munich, Simpsons (English) medium and dark crystal, Briess (American) crystal 80, Briess organic chocolate malt, and Simpsons chocolate malt. Here's what I found.
Simpsons crystal malt is far superior to Briess. I picked Briess's Crystal 80 to compare because in previous tastings it has been my favorite of Briess's crystal malts, but Simpsons medium crystal blows it away. The medium crystal has a rich toffee-like sweetness, and lacks the coarse grainy flavor of the Briess. (Briess apparently uses 6-row barley for most of their specialty malts.) The Simpsons dark crystal was also good, but more raisiny than I like. That's just a problem I have with dark crystal malts in general—I'm sure the dark crystal would make a brilliant dubbel or old ale if that's your bag.
On the other hand, there wasn't a clear winner between the Belgian and German Munich malts. The Belgian Munich had a really nice light, honey-like maltiness, while the German Munich was richer, breadier, and more savory (in a good way). I think the Belgian Munich would work really well as an accent to an IPA or pale Belgian ale, while the German Munich would be great in a more malt-focused beer.
Since I don't much like chewing on dark-roasted grains, I made a tea out of the chocolate malts to compare them. Simpsons chocolate malt was significantly darker than the Briess, but the flavors of the two were very close. If pressed, I'd give the edge to Briess, which had a slightly rounder, sweeter flavor, but I'd be happy using either one in a dark ale. I also like the fact that the Briess is lighter, since it (presumably) means that I can make a brown ale that has a good amount of roast flavor without being black.
I think that choosing my malts more carefully is going to make a big difference in the quality of my beer. We'll see how it works out in my next batch, a smoked brown ale with rye.